“Did you hear what he did?” “Guess what we found out about our new colleague!” In spite of their apparent enthusiasm, gossips—people who laugh loudly and try to capture the attention of others through the tantalising information they have to share—are often not as happy as they seem.
It is said that, one day, the famous philosopher Socrates was visited by an acquaintance who wanted to tell him what he had heard about a friend of theirs. Before listening to what the visitor was going to tell him, Socrates requested that he apply the Triple Filter, namely: the Truth Filter (how true was the information about his friend?), the Goodness Filter (was it something good about his friend?) and the Utility Filter (was the information useful to him?). When the information did not pass through any of the three filters, Socrates concluded: “Then why do you have to tell me?”
Why do people gossip?
Nowadays, surprisingly, gossip is rarely considered a matter of weakness or mediocrity. People who gossip seem strong, popular, interesting, and in control of their situation. Even if the gossip turns out to be fake, it is initially appealing because of its implications.
Psychologists explain the manifestation of gossip, first of all, on the grounds of a psychological need. The fact that from an early age people are taught not to be negative towards the people they interact with (not to harm them, push them, or envy them, and so on), psychologists say, leads to the development of compensatory behaviours such as gossip.
Therefore, gossip is thought to be a tool used to release the tension that an individual accumulates over time.
Other experts believe that people gossip out of a desire to be noticed, and to draw attention to themselves. A question like, “Did you see what that person did? They can’t do anything right,” formulated after the flaws of the person in question have been previously listed, can actually mean: “Did you see what that person did? They can’t compare to me, I do everything right, and they’re not worthy of consideration!”
Moreover, gossip is also engaged in because of a lack of self-confidence (jealousy would be a good example). When they don’t feel appreciated enough, or consider themselves inferior to others, people gossip to feel better about themselves.
Psychologists point to anxiety due to environmental changes as another trigger of gossip. Newcomers to a group gossip out of a desire to be accepted and integrated into that group. In this case, the gossip becomes a tool for collecting information. There are people who are willing to sacrifice their principles in order to gain the acceptance of others.
However, it seems that there is also a positive cause of gossip. Sometimes gossip is born of altruism and not the desire to destroy the reputation of others.
When gossip is based on concern for others, positive results may arise, says social psychologist Matthew Feinberg.
In one of the studies conducted with his colleagues, Feinberg found that people who observed antisocial acts complained of changes in blood pressure and felt frustrated up until the moment they informed the victims of those acts. From this perspective, the authors believe that this form of gossip is based on a sincere desire to help others. Moreover, they noticed that generous people generally tend to engage in such a form of gossip.
|British researchers at the Social Issues Research Centre have created a psychological profile of the gossiper, which brings together their most common features. Among the indicated “qualities” are: envy, a volcanic temperament (the desire to always be the centre of attention) and low health, educational, material, and intellectual resources.
The effects of gossip
Paradoxically, recent studies (in psychology, social psychology, and anthropology) attribute a number of benefits to gossip. These include increased progesterone secretion in female gossipers (progesterone is a hormone that induces well-being, reducing anxiety and stress), and the stimulation of positive behaviours. According to a study carried out by professor Jennifer Bosson from the University of Tampa, Florida, for Personal Relationships magazine, gossip helps you connect with strangers, strengthens ties with friends, and is considered a bonding activity. Therefore, we can say that gossip is a behaviour worth embracing, given its positive effects. Moreover, as evidenced by some studies in the field of psychology, non-participation in gossip at work is frowned upon by individuals, and is considered a disservice to one’s career.
The truth is, although it may initially provide a feeling of mastering the situation, gossip essentially corrupts the individual, bringing to light their negative traits and ultimately accentuating their weaknesses.
Thus, gossipers always end up being dissatisfied with various aspects of their lives, but do nothing constructive to fix their problems.
In addition, more often than not, we overlook the fact that gossip usually carries more weight than reality. This was demonstrated in a study conducted by a team led by Ralf Sommerfeld, from the prestigious Max Planck Institute in Germany. When the study participants were asked to express an opinion about a certain individual, 44% of a group of 126 students changed their minds because of gossip, even when what they heard contradicted what they had seen with their own eyes.
The media and gossip support mechanisms
It’s saddening how gossip is even supported by quality publications that let gossip about movies or sports celebrities slip in at the bottom of the page. The same thing happens in certain television shows that spread gossip about various stars. The goal? To offer the feeling that we can get behind the scenes of an otherwise inaccessible world. To paraphrase social psychologist Laurent Bègue, group hate is a powerful way to share the positive.
The public shouldn’t be satisfied with justifications for gossip, such as the need for ratings in the case of television. We should exercise the option to change the channel when certain things are not to our taste, recognising the need to present the facts as they occur in everyday reality.
People need to be aware that they are deliberately choosing to watch what they are being shown, and that we often claim a lack of options as an excuse. Although the reality around us is often harsh, we do not need to constantly expose ourselves to the worst it has to offer. Taking a break can be healing and, in addition, a source of balance. The world is not only as it appears on the five o’clock news, or in reality shows. We should be concerned about the “food” that is fed to us until intoxication. Much depends on how we filter the information we receive, and what choices we will make in the future, regardless of the area in which these decisions will be made.
Gossip, a social relations enhancer?
As Matthew Feinberg and his fellow researchers highlighted, prosocial gossip is a special category, and is considered an important tool in social relations. Prosocial gossip includes calling out unfair acts by warning others about individuals willing to behave duplicitously, for example, but also includes highlighting the positive results obtained by others, or the correctness and cooperative behaviours they show. It was found that, in reaction to prosocial gossip, the less prosocial people tend to become cooperative, even generous, to ensure they present a good image in front of others.
Tested hypotheses that affirm the positive effects of prosocial gossip explore:
1. Frustration: Witnessing an antisocial act leads to experiencing negative emotions, especially among prosocial people, who will initiate prosocial gossip.
2. Helping others: The main motivation in the case of prosocial gossip is to offer help.
3. The feeling of liberation: Prosocial gossip leads to a decrease in negative emotions and a state of release once the help has been given.
4. Prevention of selfish behaviours: Prosocial gossip helps to solve social dilemmas by preventing selfish and exploitative behaviours in others.
How do the scales tip?
The case of prosocial gossip, considered beneficial because of its control over social behaviours, leaves at least two important aspects unclear:
1. Is the motivation for gossip altruistic (helping others) or does it only seek to reduce the negative tension of the individual that witnesses an unjust act (essentially a selfish and self-centred procedure)?
2. Is prosocial gossip always true? The initiative to expose certain people doesn’t guarantee that the information provided is correct, and not intentionally misrepresented. Scientific explanations of the benefits of gossip don’t often address the correctness of behaviour, which is essential in relation to others.
Overall, gossip is more of a failure of self-affirmation.
Overall, gossip is more of a failure of self-affirmation. When self-esteem is low, people tend to compare themselves to others and denigrate them. They gossip to communicate their anxieties, ask for sympathy, or to say something good, indirectly, about themselves and their listeners (accomplices). It’s for the pleasure of raising curiosity, monopolizing the discussion space, or signalling that one has important information to impart to a chosen few.
Although maintained by various means and environments, gossip can be avoided. The solution is simple: before it can be transmitted, the information must be tested for correctness, goodness and usefulness. If it cannot pass these three filters perfectly, then why tell it?