The Science of Gossip

The scientific reasons behind gossip offer greater insight into our social structures and methods of cultural construction.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Growing up, I was frequently reminded that gossip was one of the greatest social sins. My parents warned me against backbiting and told me that partaking in the devious deed would eventually catch up to me. The shows I saw on television were filled with sappy tales of gossip and ruined friendships, complete with teary hugs and sniffles at the end. The moral of the story was always the same: gossip hurts the people around you, and your safest option is to avoid it at all costs. Yet, despite the best efforts of both my parents and the television shows, I still found myself continuing to sneak a little whisper about some social situation or another. It led me to wonder why gossip is so irresistibly commonplace if it’s so bad.

By definition, gossip is the act of spreading information with details that are not necessarily true. When anyone mentions the word “gossip,” a clear image comes to mind of dirty secrets being swapped via whispers and shifty glances. Though it has maintained its salacious reputation, even inspiring well-known shows such as “Gossip Girl,” one of the largest misconceptions about gossip is that it is primarily malicious. In fact, a meta-analysis published in “Social Psychological and Personality Science” showed that most gossip is related to neutral topics rather than the expected malicious ones. Malicious gossip focuses on criticizing people, while neutral gossip focuses on more mundane themes. For example, neutral gossip would involve briefly mentioning a coworker’s achievement, whereas malicious gossip would involve mentioning the same achievement and accrediting it to negative or dishonest behavior. Positive gossip includes congratulatory themes. Approximately 15 percent of the conversations analyzed were categorized as malicious gossip, while nine percent of all conversations rang up as positive gossip. The rest was idle chatter.

This study might make most of our gossip seem benign and useless. However, there is a neurological reason behind our tendency to falsely think of gossip as primarily negative. A 2011 study published in “Science” titled “The Visual Impact of Gossip” suggested that negative gossip alters the way we see physical features. A team of scientists brought in a group of volunteers and had them look at a set of individual photographs of faces. As the volunteers observed each person, the team would attach gossip about each person. For example, one volunteer would learn that one person threw a chair at his classmate, while another would learn that the person had helped an elderly woman with her groceries.

After this, the team observed how each volunteer’s brain responded to seeing the faces of the people they had gossiped about. They did so by showing unrelated images to the left and right eyes of each volunteer. For instance, one volunteer would look at a photo of flowers with his right eye while looking at individual photographs of the faces with his left eye. This caused what is known as binocular rivalry, a visual phenomenon caused by our brain’s inability to focus on two images at the same time. The researchers found that the volunteers focused more on the faces that they had gossiped about negatively, implying that they found them more interesting than those they had gossiped about either neutrally or positively.

Frank McAndrew, professor of psychology at Knox College, said that this study points to gossip as a means of cultural evolution: “For years, people like me have been saying that our intense interest in gossip is not really a character flaw,” he said. “It is part of who we are. It is almost a biological event, and it exists for good evolutionary reasons.”

Similarly, many psychologists and anthropologists argue that gossip plays a large role in social development. Robin Dunbar, a British anthropologist, supports the theory that gossip was an element of survival in ancient hominids. Dunbar argues that gossip largely stems from an evolutionary need to steer clear of harmful situations. By quietly sharing information with one another, early hominids were able to identify harmful situations, regardless of whether they were internal or external. He extends this idea to modern-day socializing, where social groups may spread information that helps individuals avoid other potentially harmful individuals.

Dunbar is also one of the largest proponents of the theory that gossip serves as a form of cultural learning, or the way a culture or group of animals learns and passes on information. He argues that gossiping facilitates the spread of information within a large social network. As the information is spread around the social network, so are the shared reactions and opinions regarding it. Consequently, individuals who participate in gossip implicitly learn which customs and behaviors are deemed acceptable, thus contributing to their personal social development. When more specific information on particular members of social groups is passed around, it allows judgments to take place. What is going on with so-and-so? Do we like them? Have they done something wrong and should we exclude them now?

Such cultural questions are easily answered as the information moves along the social conveyor belt. As judgments of behavioral values spread through the social group, sets of shared values begin to form. Through gossip, the definition of what is deemed morally acceptable by the group becomes clearer, consequently leading to the development of a distinct culture characterized by a unique set of values and customs.

Gossip is present at Stuyvesant, just as it is in most high schools. A poll asking students if they gossiped about anything received 126 responses: 62 percent answering “Yes” and 38 percent answering “No.” Junior Sajia Athai provided her opinion on the matter: “There have been many instances where gossip has helped me avoid detrimental situations. I wish I could stay away from gossip, but […] things about people [often] get revealed that help me understand their true colors.”

Similarly, some students reported the idea that though gossip had potentially shielded them from harmful situations, they were trying to dissociate themselves from it to avoid the toxicity that came with the constant conversation.

Sophomore Elizabeth Black said, “When it’s the second type of gossip—the bullying type—it’s not fun to be the person it’s about. And even if it wasn’t your intention, things you say about other people can get twisted and taken too far.”

Similarly, junior Sasha Socolow said, “A lot of times my words were misinterpreted, or sometimes I said hurtful things without realizing what I was even doing.”

Perhaps the wariness of gossip emerges as a result of a collective digital presence. In the age of technology, gossip takes on a new degree of severity. Instead of being passed around in the form of difficult-to-pinpoint rumors, information now spreads through screenshots and videos. The large number of apps dedicated to social networking and communication also means that formerly private details can easily reach unknown and sometimes unwanted audiences. By making gossip more accessible, technology has also caused it to become more dangerous. Though screenshots seem to offer a sense of veracity in uncertain situations, they can easily be faked and used to spread misinformation.

Humans are ever-evolving, including our methods of communication and societal building. Despite its adaptation to the presence of technology, the use of gossip as a means of creating strong social bonds is unlikely to fall out of fashion. Regardless of the way society views it, gossip is responsible and necessary for the evolution of our cultures and social values and patterns. So the next time your parents jab at you for casually gossiping with your friends, simply tell them that you’re practicing cultural learning, evolution, and building stronger social bonds with those around you.