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Why We Gossip

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By Tom Jacobs

Did you hear what happened at yesterday’s meeting? Can you believe it?

If you find those sort of quietly whispered questions about your co-workers irresistible, you’re hardly alone. But why are we drawn to gossip?

A new study suggests it’s because the rumors, innuendo and hearsay are ultimately all about us — where we rate in the unofficial local hierarchy, and how we might improve our standing.

“Gossip recipients tend to use positive and negative group information to improve, promote and protect the self,” writes a research team led by Elena Martinescu of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. “Individuals need evaluative information about others to evaluate themselves.”

Writing in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, the researchers describe two experiments testing the personal value gossip recipients derive. The first featured 178 university undergraduates who had all previously worked on at least one course assignment with a group of four or more students.

Participants “were asked to recall and write a short description of an incident in which a group members shared with them either positive or negative information about another group member’s confidence,” the researchers write. (Eighty-five received a positive report, 93 a negative one.)

They then reported their level of agreement with a series of statements. Some of these measured the self-improvement value of the gossip (“The information received made me think I can learn a lot from X”); others measured its self-promotion value (“The information I received made me feel that I am doing well compared to X”). Still others measured whether the gossip raised personal concerns (“The information I received made me feel that I must protect my image in the group”).

In the second experiment, 122 undergraduates were assigned the role of “sales agent” at a major company. They received gossip from a colleague that a third person either did very well or very badly at a performance evaluation, and were then debriefed about the emotions that information evoked. They also responded to the aforementioned set of statements presented to participants in the first experiment.

In each experiment, participants found both negative and positive gossip to be of personal value, albeit for different reasons. “Positive gossip has self-improvement value,” they write. “Competence-related positive gossip about others contains lessons about how to improve one’s own competence.”

On the flip side, “negative gossip has self-promotion value, because it provides individuals with social comparison information that justifies self-promoting judgments, which results in feelings of pride.”

“Contrary to lay perceptions,” the researchers assert, “most negative gossip is not intended to hurt the target, but to please the gossiper and receiver.”

In addition, the results “showed that negative gossip elicited self-protection concerns,” the researchers write. “Negative gossip makes people concerned that their reputations may be at risk, as they may personally become targets of negative gossip in the future, which generates fear.”

Fear is hardly a pleasant sensation, of course, but it can be a motivating one. As Martinescu and her colleagues put it: “Gossip conveniently provides individuals with indirect social-comparison information about relevant others.”

In other words, if you don’t want to be viewed as a goof-off like Charley, you’d better get your act together.

It’s worth noting that this study did not look at who-is-sleeping-with-who gossip, which presumably has a somewhat different function — although news that an illicit couple has gotten caught could certainly serve as a cautionary tale.

But it does show that beyond providing “emotional catharsis and social control,” confidentially treaded information about the competence, or lack thereof, of a co-worker can be “an essential resource for self-evaluation.”

Pass the word.
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