Wicked Thoughts

Why we love to gloat and derive pleasure from the misfortunes of others.

What Does Picking on Charlie Say About Us?

Gossiping about others may point to our desperate desire to feel worthy

When We Gossip About Someone, It Likely Says More About Us Than About Them
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The other day, I went out to lunch with my colleagues and, as has probably happened a million times across the globe, the topic turned to: What's Wrong With Charlie Sheen? Everyone seemed extensively knowledgeable about the myriad ways in which Mr. Sheen is messed up; thus, the conversation didn't really enlighten us with any new information about him. Further, we weren't talking about him to try and help him out either. And yet, there we were, gossiping--for that's what it was--about a person whose path we will almost certainly never cross in our lives.

What earthly purpose does gossiping about someone so far removed from us serve?

Jonathan Haidt, a scientist who focuses on moral psychology, suggests that gossiping can reinforce the moral codes that are important for a society to maintain order. Imagine that someone behaved badly, but only a handful of people saw him behave that way. Gossiping spreads the word about him, potentially exposing him to the collective wrath of the others, and thus makes him less likely to engage in the bad behavior again. A related benefit from gossiping, one could argue, is that it serves to reinforce the moral codes even among those engaged in the act of gossiping. Presumably, a person who gossips about someone else's moral turpitude will be less likely to violate moral codes himself.

With all due respect to Haidt's thesis, I suspect that less charitable explanations underlie the vast majority of gossiping that goes on in the world. Consider this: Although it is true that we mostly gossip about moral transgressions, it is not the extremity of the transgressions, but rather, the identity of the transgressors that determines both the quantity (i.e., how much) and quality (i.e., virulence) of the gossip that ensues. Specifically, moral transgressions by the "rich and famous," attract the most gossip. News that Joe the janitor was arrested with a stash of cocaine or that Buck the bus-driver was enjoying a polyamorous relationship would perhaps evoke envy, but not much more than water-cooler chatter. If, however, the same acts were perpetrated by Roger Federer or (god forbid) Tom Hanks, then everyone better watch out, for the motor mouths would run amok.

There are at least two reasons why we are so much more keen to gossip about the rich and famous. First, we all like to feel like we are connected with people who have control over resources. This just makes evolutionary sense: those with greater access to the rich and famous will naturally be more likely to survive dire circumstances (e.g., a drought or an economic melt-down). Gossiping about the rich and famous people makes us feel like we know them better, and thus have access to their resources even though we actually don't.

Second, we like to bring down people who are "above" us, because doing so makes us feel more worthy. In an earlier post, I had discussed how social comparisons are useful because they tell us which goals are worthy of pursuit and which world-views are valid. Social comparisons can serve another purpose as well: they tell us how much we should value ourselves. Most of us link our self-worth to our accomplishments--the more we accomplish, the higher our self-worth. However, how do we evaluate our accomplishments? Contrary to what Ayn Rand would say (see cartoon on the side panel), there is no objective yardstick for evaluating accomplishments. Take a simple example, a person marooned on an island from birth has no way of knowing whether running 100 meters in 10 seconds is a good time or not. To make that judgment, he would need to compare his time to that of another runner.

Similarly, if your self-worth depends on your wealth and fame, then the magnitude of your wealth and fame mean nothing for your self-worth unless you know how much money and fame other people have, as some recent work by Hsee and his colleagues suggests. So, when our self-worth is threatened, an easy way to buttress it is by engaging in downward comparisons (i.e., comparisons to those who have less than us). An alternative way is to bring down those who have more than us. It is this self-centered motive that underlies much of the gossip around Charlie Sheen. To put it bluntly, we pick on Mr. Sheen to boost our own self-image.

Even if one's intent in gossiping were more noble (e.g., we truly wished to reinforce moral codes, or we truly wished to help the person we were gossiping about), I would submit that there's an unfortunate element in almost all acts of gossiping: it assumes that we are qualified to speak about what another person should and could have done. Thus, when we gossip, we feel overly confident that, had we been in Britney Spear's shoes, we would not have tonsured our hair or fallen prey to drugs, or that, had we been in Tiger Wood's shoes, we wouldn't have slept with escorts. But, as research on "the empathy gap" by Ariely, Loewenstein and others has repeatedly shown, our theories about what we would and could have done in another situation are astoundingly erroneous, and--need I say it?--biased in favor of portraying us in the best possible light.

So, the next time you catch yourself gossiping, you may want to think about why you are doing so. Are you gossiping because you want to make yourself feel better by putting another person down? Or, are you doing so for more noble reasons? An earnest enquiry into the question may reveal an answer that surprises you--and helps you grow.

Interested in these types of topics? Go to Sapient Nature.

Wicked Thoughts