Gossiping has a bad name. We frown upon people who talk about others behind their back and it is therefore not surprising that we all want to avoid being labelled a gossiper. But is engaging in gossip all bad? And why do we have an urge to gossip even though we know that the person that we gossip about might feel hurt when they find out what was said about them behind their back?
To answer these questions, it is important to take a step back and consider the function that gossiping serves for groups and communities. It is only then that we can start to appreciate how gossiping about others—in particular those that behave in ways that deviates from what is normative—helps us to develop a better understanding of that what is expected and approved of in a particular community or society.
Deviance Spurs the Gossip that Clarifies Norms and Builds Bonds
A line of research that we recently published in Psychological Science provides some evidence for the idea that gossip about deviant behaviours may help people to get a clearer sense of the prevailing social norms. Imagine the following set-up. You are invited to take part in a psychology experiment and upon arrival you are introduced to another person that you have not met before. You are then seated side-by-side in front of a computer screen and you watch one of three videos together. You are asked not to talk to the other person while watching the video. All three videos captured students going about their daily lives in a recognizable and well-frequented campus courtyard and all of them include a female confederate walking from the right foreground toward a set of rubbish bins (see screen shots below). There is a slight difference between the three videos though. In the negative deviance video, the confederate casually dropped an empty drink can partway through her journey (see a). In the control video, the confederate walked past the same drink can (see b). In the positive deviance video, the confederate stopped to pick up the drink can and deposited it in the rubbish bins (see c).
For us, it was of interest to see how our participants interacted and communicated with the other participants after they had watched the video together. Perhaps not surprisingly, we found that students who witnessed the deviance (negative or positive) were more likely to spontaneously gossip about it with one another than when they had been watching the control video. What is more interesting is that the more they gossiped about it, the more they reported they had a better understanding of social norms. Our findings, therefore, suggest that our everyday gossip helps us to develop a better understanding of the social groups and societies to which we belong. A second important finding was that the more that people felt that gossiping had clarified social norms for them, the more they felt a stronger bond with the other person they had gossiped with. Thus, gossiping enhances a sense of shared perspective and this acts as ‘social glue’, enhancing social cohesion. In sum, these findings suggest that gossip may be a mechanism through which deviance can have positive downstream social consequences: It clarifies norms and spurs bonding.
Gossiping About Harvey Weinstein
The importance of this message became obvious in the last couple of months in the context of the sexual harassment allegations against Harvey Weinstein. The vast amount of press coverage about his serious transgressions triggered not only extensive sharing of information about his deviant behaviour, it also sparked communication and debate in many other organisations and communities about what behaviors are (and are not) tolerated. In that sense, by gossiping about some individual’s inappropriate workplace behaviour, it became clearer for everyone involved what the standards for appropriate behaviour are. It also brought people together and enhanced their sense of solidarity. This is important because such communities that rally around a particular social norm (in this case the #MeToo campaign) become identifiable communities that form important sources of social support for victims.
Gossiping To Help You Determine Who Can Be Trusted
There are other benefits to gossiping. Gossip provides a way to learn about a person’s previous behaviours and that puts us in a better position to decide who to interact with and who to avoid. It tells us who to trust and who not to trust in the future. In the case of Harvey Weinstein, it is unfortunate that there hadn’t been more gossip about his problematic behaviour in the past. If there had been, a number of aspiring actresses would have been forewarned and they would have been better prepared for interactions with Weinstein.
Peters, K., Jetten, J., Radova, D., & Austin, K. (2017). Gossiping about deviance: Evidence that deviance spurs the gossip that builds bonds. Psychological Science.