A couple of weeks ago I was on my way into work and I picked up a copy of the British Metro newspaper and on page five the headline was “[Conservative Member of Parliament Michael Gove] is addicted to gossip”. Obviously the article piqued my interest because of the word “addicted” in the title of the article and I decided there and then that I would write a blog on the topic. I ought to add that even before researching the topic, I did not expect to find any empirical evidence of anyone being genuinely addicted to gossip.
According to the Wikipedia entry, “gossip is idle talk or rumor, especially about the personal or private affairs of others…The term is sometimes used to specifically refer to the spreading of ‘dirt’ and misinformation as (for example) through excited discussion of scandals”. I suppose all of us have engaged in gossiping, and now in the age of social media there’s probably a lot of you reading this who do it on a daily basis. Because of the social media, sharing gossip has become faster and more widespread. Rumors about celebrities can be spread online extremely fast. There is a fair amount of research into the psychology of gossip both in everyday life and of its effect in the workplace. From an evolutionary psychology perspective, Dr. Robin Dunbar has noted in his book Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language that it is a form of social grooming that helps social bonding among large groups of people and that language evolved for gossip to occur.
Unsurprisingly I couldn’t find any academic research that’s been carried out into gossip as an addiction although I did locate a number of online articles on the topic written by both journalists and psychologists. And there’s no shortage of diagnostic quizzes and tips on how to stop gossiping (for instance, you can visit the ‘Are you addicted to gossip?’ webpage and answer the questions, read advice on ‘How to End a Celebrity Gossip Addiction’ or look at the ‘6 Steps to Stop Gossiping + Why It Matters’ webpage).
Although I didn’t locate any empirical research on addiction to gossip, the concept did make a fleeting appearance in a few academic book chapters I read. For instance, in a 2008 book chapter entitled ‘Consuming gossip’ Vissia Ita Yulianto looked at the discourses that women use to justify gossiping. Yulianto noted:
“One important finding from my discussions with female viewers is that, when asked if celebrity gossip shows contain messages, they remark that it gives them information about celebrities. They consider ‘gossip’ to be ‘information’. This may be because they felt the need to rationalize their addiction to gossip, and to legitimatize it by referring to it as a source of ‘information’.”
Here, Yulianto uncritically assumes her participants have an “addiction to gossip” although she would no doubt argue she is using the word ‘addiction’ in a metaphorical sense rather than from a psychological and/or clinical perspective. In another book chapter, Dr. Andrea Timár, a literary studies scholar examining the works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and mentions (in passing) that the “craving for gossip is ever-demanding”. These few simple words include both a well-known symptom of addiction (i.e., ‘craving’) as well as describing a feature of addiction (i.e., ‘ever-demanding’).
One of the more interesting articles I read was by Kiran Relangi on the Purple Room Healing website. He claims that gossip is the “ugly addiction” and that it is a “repeated and ritualistic abuse of knowledge and of our own personalities. Gossip turns us from polite conversation makers into rumor-vampires scandalizing private lives for personal satisfaction”. Relango does appear to see gossip as something addictive and that “like any addiction, we only gossip because we do not want to be reminded of our insecurities, failures and voids within. By engaging in gossip we not only divert our minds from introspection, we also create such falsehoods that will make us feel better and safe”. He then lists what he sees as the four different functions for gossip in our lives (including ‘gossip as an addiction’). These four reasons are taken verbatim from his article:
* “Gossip as a defense mechanism: It feels good to ‘prove’ another human is much inferior to us. That feeling creates a temporary and partial amnesia for our own shortcomings and insecurities. Instead of dealing with our own ugliness we create even uglier pictures of others around so we can feel better.
* Gossip as an emotional vent: The persons we gossip about quickly become our vents. Whenever we are upset about anything, we find ourselves engaging vehement and slanderous gossip smearing somebody’s image with shit in our lives.
* Gossip for conversation: Talk ill of a commonly disliked person so we can bond closer to fellow gossipers. Any bond built on gossip is likely to sever because of gossip.
* Gossip as an addiction: Count how many times a week you engage yourself in ‘discussing’ affairs of a third person. You may feel you have control over what you speak and how much you speak. But strangely you never feel motivated to stop speaking. That’s an addiction. Gossip as an addiction is a ‘sweet’ cover for our failures and the ugliness we carry within”.
An online article (‘Are you addicted to gossip?’) on the Inner Self website by Dr. Richard Michael goes as far to say that gossip is the world's favorite pastime. He asserts:
“How and why has the world become so addicted to gossip? The reason is that those that gossip and who listen to gossip do not view themselves as being important, but they do view others as being important…The problem with listening to gossip is that you do not just listen to it with your ears or see it with your eyes, you hear and see it with your heart, and that eventually wounds the heart. The heart becomes wounded because you have temporarily filled an empty space within it with someone other than yourself and your own individual importance. Therefore, you have filled that space with words and sights that you heard, read, and saw about others. This leads to a longing to learn more about this person, much like an addiction”.
In an article entitled ‘Addiction to gossip’ by Dr. Margaret Paul, she responds an ‘agony aunt’ type way to a man writing about his “unhappy” mother who uses talking about other people’s problems as a way of socially bonding with her. In this situation, Dr. Paul responds by saying the mother “is likely using her addiction to gossip as a way of connecting with her son and avoiding her own emptiness and aloneness that is the result of her self-abandonment”. In response to another woman who cannot work out why she and her friends constantly (and “harshly”) judge other people that they know, Dr. Paul responds by saying “it feels good to our ego wounded self to feel like we are one up to these people, and it gives us something to connect about". She then goes on to claim that:
“Gossip is like any other addiction – it is a way of avoiding responsibility for your feelings, and can be used by the wounded self as a way to connects with others. The wounded self has numerous ways of trying to connect with others other than being truly authentic and caring, such as drinking together, smoking pot together, ridiculing others together, or even using things like food to get a sense of closeness without having to be authentic. Gossip is another one of the ways the wounded self tries to connect and get filled up externally when you are abandoning yourself”.
Another online article I came across was a hypnosis site claiming that ‘gossip addiction’ can be treated. I don’t doubt that constantly gossiping can sometimes result in negative detrimental effects for the individual but that does not mean it is an addiction. The site spells out how gossip addicts can be helped:
“If your mouth sometimes runs away with you and you hurt others (or yourself) by your gossiping, spilling the beans and divulging other people's secrets - then this ‘Stop Gossiping’ session is for you…Gossip can seem harmless. A certain amount of sharing of information can be a way of bonding people together in groups…The trouble is that gossip spreads. Sometimes faster than wildfire. And because the story doing the rounds can get distorted…when it finally gets back to the one who was being talked about it can seem malicious. Even if the originator had no such intention. So even so-called 'harmless gossip' can ruin reputations – not just the reputation of the subject of the gossip, but your reputation too, if you were the one who started the gossip, or helped to spread it…It's as if gossiping has become an addiction - as if you just can't get enough of it…Using potent imagery to speak to your deepest self, ‘Stop Gossiping’ will help you enter a transformative state where you can untangle yourself from the short term buzz of gossiping”
Although I have argued that it is theoretically possible to become addicted to anything if there are constant rewards and reinforcements, I have yet to come across anything (even anecdotal) to suggest that anyone has ever been addicted to gossip.
References and further reading
Drexler, P. (2014). Why we love to gossip. Psychology Today, August 12. Located at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/our-gender-ourselves/201408/why-we-...
Dunbar, R. (1998). Grooming, gossip and the evolution of language. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Engle, G. (2015). The psychology of gossip: Why talking sh*t makes you happy. Elite Daily, March 20. Located at: http://elitedaily.com/life/culture/gossip-born-to-talk-sht/972434/
Ludden, D. (2015). Why you were born to gossip. Psychology Today, February 27. Located at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/talking-apes/201502/why-you-were-bo...
Michael, R.C. (1998). Are you addicted to gossip? Inner Self. Located at: http://innerself.com/content/creating-realities/4116-addicted-to-gossip....
Paul, M. (2010). Addiction to gossip. Mental Health Matters, November 9. Located at: http://mental-health-matters.com/addiction-to-gossip/
Relangi, K. (2012). Gossip, the ugly addiction. Purple Room Healing, June 12. Located at: https://deadmanswill.wordpress.com/2012/06/02/gossip-the-ugly-addiction/
Tiger, R. (2015). Celebrity gossip blogs and the interactive construction of addiction. New Media & Society, 17(3), 340-355.
Wikipedia (2016). Gossip. Located at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gossip
Yulianto, V.I. (2008). Consuming gossip: A re-domestication of Indonesian women. In Heryanto, A. (Ed.). Popular Culture in Indonesia: Fluid Identities in Post-Authoritarian Politics (pp.130-142). New York: Routledge.