Nicholas DiFonzo

Nicholas DiFonzo

Around the Watercooler

The Gossip Paradox

Can Gossip be Good for Us?

Posted Feb 10, 2010

It's been a couple of months since Tiger Woods's private affairs dominated national news, and activity on this front has by no means ceased.

The gossip tsunami began when Tiger managed to mysteriously smash his car into a tree; his golf-club-wielding wife then smashed out all the windows of that car. These events were dramatic and eye-catching, and held all the marks of a domestic conflict. Tabloid blood-hounds smelled a fox on the green; soon, spectacularly beautiful starlets and porn-stars started to tell-all. Tiger is alleged to have been, well, quite a tiger.

Pouring fuel on this media fire are images of women who resemble Barbie, lurid details of longstanding trysts, a dearth of public appearances or comments since the smash-ups, and irresistible double-entendre puns about the game of golf. In addition, the contrast between these titillating tales and Tiger's ubiquitous advertising spots-showcasing an amiable, smiling, and family-friendly super-athlete-further feed the rumor frenzy.

It was a perfect storm of gossip morality tales: precipitated by a public domestic altercation, a famous and fabulously wealthy athlete on a pedestal falls from grace in a cloud of lust, infidelity, and loss.

Was (is) all this gossip just useless (or worse) talk? Don't people have anything better to do with their time? Or is there something about gossip that might have a redeeming social purpose...

Gossip is Bad

Gossip has a bad reputation-and deservedly so. It is often used to exclude, slander, or attack another person, characteristically in an underhanded and devious manner. Middle-school memories are frequently populated with painful recollections of victimization at the hand of vicious rumors. Psychologists even have a term for such activity: relational aggression. Such experiences can be so painful that they have driven socially ostracized youths to suicide. For grown-ups, an attack of gossip is not just emotionally painful; it can lead to more tangible types of injury. The Talmud speaks at length, for example, of the damage that a person can do by gossiping about another's vocation, likening it to murder.

Gossip-especially celebrity gossip-appeals to, preys upon, and intensifies a voyeuristic impulse in our nature. "We want to know!"...about other people's private affairs. And not just celebrities, which most people consider "fair game." We want to know about the personal affairs of people we are acquainted with. Co-worker Jane's sordid past, the secret sexual sins of our neighbor Fred, the youthful antics of our old Aunt Mabel. And especially the undisclosed failures and foibles of those we dislike or who make us feel uncomfortable.

This last desire informs us of perhaps the nastiest motive in gossip, moral rationalization-that feeling of glee to learn that someone else is worse than we are. Relatively speaking, we must be alright then. "What? Tiger had all these affairs but presented a squeaky clean image? What a hypocrite! (I'm not proud of what I do but at least I'm honest...)" This motive explains the heightened interest in negative gossip about people in positions entrusted with moral leadership-ministers, priests, politicians, professors, parents, and yes-well-known sports figures. Spreading negative gossip about others is thus a (cheap) way of boosting your estimation of yourself.

The Gossip Paradox

Of course, the flip side of these negatives is that gossip serves as a useful warning about harmful people. Telling a new coworker about the boss's hang-ups can help her avoid becoming embroiled in an unpleasant interaction. And such warnings are motivated by pro-social concerns. Your mother warns you about associating too closely with Lucy because she heard that Lucy does recreational drugs-this gossip is an expression of her love and concern. Gossip not only seems good in this case, but a moral duty.

From the perspective of the group, then, gossip serves as an effective way of detecting bad behavior. People can only know a limited number of persons well-gossip serves as a second-hand source of information about individuals we simply don't have the time to find out about on our own. There is a certain efficiency in this way of gaining social information, albeit perhaps at the expense of accuracy.

But there is an even more intriguing paradox. Dovetailing gossip's function as a warning is that gossip itself serves also as moral instruction and motivation to the hearer.

Gossip as Moral Instruction

Some of what we learn about right and wrong comes from the hand of our guardians and teachers in the form of codes and principles. Some comes from our consumption of media in the form of stories and narratives. Yet much more powerful are the rules that apply most to us in situ, that is, in our particular situation; these are communicated informally, or tacitly, through our local network of friends and acquaintances. Gossip informs us about how to act properly in a given social context.

Gossip is potent moral education. Consider the most mundane of gossip topics: what our fellow co-workers wear to the office. "Did you see what Cheri was wearing-or should I say, wasn't wearing-today?" Standards of modesty and notions of what is appropriate are regularly communicated via gossip in exquisitely precise educational modules attuned to one's particular situation.

Even more potent, gossip informally powerfully regulates behavior through the desire to avoid strong social punishment. Wanting to avoid granting others the opportunity to gossip about us may serve as an effective deterrent from engaging in socially unacceptable acts. Hearing truly negative gossip expressing real disapproval about Tiger's moral failings may make one think twice about embarking down a similar path.

Gossip as Moral Motivation

It is a curious feature of being human that we are so keen on how we think we are represented in the minds of other persons. Even when we are not actually present, we desire others to hold a favorable image of us, to say kind things about us, and to admire us. This is perhaps another manifestation of social psychological research showing that humans have a profoundly self-serving bias in their perceptions and desires. Knowledge that one is the object of evaluative discussion is therefore important to us, and quite powerful.

"Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me" is not only untrue-unkind words hurt a lot-but they don't even apply to words that we merely suspect that other people are saying about us.

True story: A senior female executive of a firm once escorted former US President Bill Clinton to a fundraising event in a car ride that lasted a few brief minutes. This took place just days after Clinton had admitted to having a tawdry affair with White House intern Monica Lewinski. Conversation about the executive's encounter focused on how awkward she must have felt at that moment-I mean, what does one talk about in such situations? There was indeed a large white elephant in the limousine.

However, I couldn't help wondering how Clinton felt, knowing that his intimate behaviors were known by virtually everyone on the planet, and a common source of giddy conversation. Clinton survived this American trial-he is very unusual in this regard. His skin must be much tougher than the average gossip target; in fact it must be made of steel.

The Dread of Exposure

Remember the transporter device in the original Star Trek TV series? The crew assembles in formation and Captain Kirk speaks into his communicator: "Beam us aboard, Scotty." Now imagine that Scotty has had a recent serious falling-out with fellow crewman Mr. Chekov, and instead of transporting the entire crew, he only transports Chekov's clothing. Suddenly, Chekov is feeling a cool breeze against his bare skin on this strange planet, and Kirk, Spock, and McCoy are gaping, pointing, and laughing.

Gossip is like those dreams where you wake up and go to school-and discover that you forgot to put your clothes on. It exposes you to the powerful public eye, and all the scrutiny, evaluation, ridicule, and ostracism that come with that exposure.

And so, paradoxically, even when the gossip is spread with the worst of motives as part of a tale-bearer's gleeful utterances, it has the effect of educating us about what constitutes unacceptable behavior and even effectively motivating us to avoid that behavior-and this is a social good.

Good from Gossip Woods?

What kind of moral instruction and motivation did we gain from gossip about Tiger's intrigues?

Strangely-given the types of tempting images and juicy text-messages disseminated by the media-I think the value of marital faithfulness was reinforced. Despite the deluge of Desperate Housewives morality in our post-modern culture, longstanding exclusive relational commitment still comes through as a thing worth having-and being upset over if it is callously thrown away. One instructive subtext from this drama is that faithful couples (and fathers) should remain faithful.

Similarly, perhaps another lesson gathered here was that money and fame do not exempt one from vows taken on the wedding day; the super-athlete is subject to the same standards as the any other family man. Money and fame are certainly not sparing Tiger any grief in this matter. More compelling than this is the moral imperative embedded in every flashy newscast and tabloid article: don't dissemble. Don't present to the world a rather wholesome family-man image while all the while engaging in a whole lot of lascivious cheating.

In addition, we were reminded that "Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned"; gentlemen, expect violent wifely anger in response to your indiscretions. Elin Nordegren (Tiger's wife) also modeled for wives the appropriate way to respond when discovering infidelity. In fact, there is a certain poetic beauty in the image of her grasping the symbol of Tiger's fame and success-his golf club-and using it to smash the windows of his expensive car.

Males also learned some helpful hints from the ready disclosures of Tiger's many alleged mistresses willing to share with the world interesting details about their numerous assignations. These ladies, though attractive, appear to lack the quality of loyalty. Guys, be careful who you hang out with. One is reminded of similar lesson in Tom Hanks' memorable line from Sleepless In Seattle: "Didn't you see Fatal Attraction?...Well I saw it and it scared the s___ out of me. It scared the s____ out of every man in America."

Tiger gossip was indeed replete with moral messages and motivations that are compelling, instructive and powerful. Moral guidance can often sound like tired bromides when they are expressed in the abstract, but when told through the drama of gossip, they appear as eloquent demarcations of good behavior.

An Unintended Consequence

This is one of those "unintended consequences." On an individual level, people most often spread gossip for amusement at another's expense, to exclude or slander, and to safeguard their threatened egos. And gossip often harms others, extinguishes trust, and injures friendships. These are bad motives and consequences, and it is no wonder that gossip has been frequently condemned in religious and ethical writings. From the Book of Exodus (23:1) in the Bible: "Don't bear vain hearsay."

Yet, as when victory is sometimes realized in the midst of defeat, out of this vain activity comes a social good: explicit applied moral education and powerful moral motivation. I suppose some may use this principle to justify their tendency to spread slanderous gossip, and this cannot be helped.

I, however, take encouragement from the gossip paradox: just when we thought the airwaves could not hold any more lurid tales about the private moral failures of sports figures that we looked up to, Virtue pulls a fast one; it turns out that all along we were undergoing useful moral instruction and that society was regulating social behavior for the common good.