The Truth About Gossip
Researchers tracked thousands of conversations to uncover gossip's insights.
Posted May 14, 2019
We all know gossip to be a human universal—but does it get an undeservedly bad rap?
New research published in the journal Social Psychology and Personality Science analyzed thousands of daily conversations to better understand the true nature of gossip. Contrary to conventional wisdom, gossip may not be as negative as we tend to think.
To arrive at this conclusion, researchers at the University of California Riverside analyzed daily conversations of 467 people over a multi-day period using an Electronically Activated Recorder (EAR, for short). EAR is a portable device that continuously samples sound from a wearer's immediate environment. Participants were encouraged to wear the device all day during the test period. This allowed researchers to unobtrusively listen in on, and analyze, the contents of participants' daily conversations.
Here's what they found. First, the researchers reported that females gossiped significantly more than males (no big surprise here, as this is consistent with past research as well as lay beliefs on gossip). They also found that people high in the personality traits of extraversion and agreeableness tended to gossip more than others.
But it gets more interesting from there. The researchers coded gossip into three distinct categories: positive/flattering gossip, neutral gossip (i.e., observations about people that aren't necessarily positive or negative), and negative/malicious gossip. Examining these three categories separately, they found that younger people tended to gossip more negatively than older people. They also found that people with higher incomes tended to gossip more neutrally than people with lower incomes.
Perhaps most interesting, however, is what the researchers didn't find. For one, when it came to evaluative gossiping, or positive/flattering and negative/malicious gossip, they found no evidence of a gender difference. They write, "Despite popular notions, the most reliable evidence for women gossiping more than men was for neutral, rather than evaluative, gossip ... The present study revealed less consistent evidence for evaluative gossip and therefore did not support the notion that women evaluatively gossip more than men."
They also dispelled another common misconception—that poorer, less educated people engage in gossip more than the affluent. If anything, the results suggest the opposite.
The researchers were also interested in understanding how people gossip. In other words, what are the common topics, times of day, and conversation characteristics that define gossip? To start, they report that just about everyone gossips a lot. They state that its pervasiveness suggests that "sanctions against gossip may be futile and underscores the importance of understanding gossip at a descriptive level." Specifically, they estimate that the average person spends 52 minutes per day gossiping.
However, they do note that the majority of gossip (75%, to be exact) is non-evaluative, or neutral, in nature. Fifteen percent of gossip is negative while the remaining 10% is positive or flattering. They also note that gossip tends to be about acquaintances more than celebrities, and typically involves an exchange of social information rather than thoughts about one's physical appearance or achievements.
Putting this all together, the study paints a rosier picture of gossip and its utility to everyday life than many would imagine. At the very least, it might make for an interesting conversation the next time you're at the water cooler.
Robbins, M. L., & Karan, A. (2019). Who Gossips and How in Everyday Life?. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 1948550619837000.