The Social and Psychological Benefits of Gossip

Researchers adopt a unique perspective in analyzing this habit

By on January 18th, 2012 09:40 GMT

Even if gossip is generally frowned upon in society (by the same people who also practice it), it does have a number of benefits. Scientists demonstrate that it plays in important role in maintaining social order, as well as in policing negative behaviors that may otherwise spread.

Granted, when done excessively, it can damage reputations and cause a great deal of mischief. But investigators at the University of California in Berkeley (UCB) decided to analyze the issue from a purely scientific perspective.

For a very long time, this habit has been cataloged as being nothing more than idle chatter, a behavior that people of low moral values engaged in so that they feel better about themselves. But the fact is that gossip may have an evolutionary foundation that makes a lot of sense.

UCB experts say that rumor-mongering also fulfills some positive roles, such as for instance preventing exploitation and reducing individual stress. Details of the study appear in the latest issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

“Gossip gets a bad rap, but we’re finding evidence that it plays a critical role in the maintenance of social order,” study coauthor and UCB social psychologist Robb Willer explains. In addition, he says, engaging in this behavior may also have a sort of therapeutic value.

In a series of experiments conducted at the university, volunteers were asked to look at other people while the latter were behaving badly. Upon witnessing these acts, volunteers displayed elevated heart hearts, which came down as soon as they began telling others what they saw.

Gossip may have also evolved in order for individuals to be able to warn others about shifty and untrustworthy characters. “Spreading information about the person whom they had seen behave badly tended to make people feel better, quieting the frustration that drove their gossip,” Willer says.

UCB social psychologist Matthew Feinberg, the lead author of the new paper, argues that people should not feel bad or guilty about gossiping, when engaging in this behavior prevents other people from being taken advantage of by unscrupulous types.

The research team is also keen on pointing out the distinction between pro-social gossip (of the type described above) and voyeuristic rumor-mongering, which is what the tabloids are doing. Keeping up with celebrities' private lives serves no purpose whatsoever.

“When we observe someone behave in an immoral way, we get frustrated. But being able to communicate this information to others who could be helped makes us feel better,” Willer explains.

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