Go ahead and share the scoop—it’s not as bad a habit as you might think
“Psst…what’s the latest?” We’ve all done it: passed on a juicy piece of gossip or listened eagerly to someone else’s dish. And although we may have felt a twinge of guilt, we kept gabbing anyway.
The truth is, 80 percent of our everyday conversations are purely personal, with more of them being gossip than anything else, according to a 2009 study by Nicholas Emler, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Surrey in England. The main reason we keep going back for more: “It’s irresistibly fun,” says Frank McAndrew, PhD, a professor of psychology at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. In fact, our minds are wired to think of it that way, says biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, PhD, author of Why Him? Why Her?: How to Find and Keep Lasting Love. When we hear a juicy new tidbit, our brain may respond to the novelty of it in the same way it might to any new and exciting experience: Levels of the brain chemical dopamine spike. “With that surge of dopamine come feelings of energy and enthusiasm,” says Dr. Fisher.
But that’s just part of the story. Why we do it, when it helps and when it hurts is as fascinating as… well, a good piece of gossip. Read on for the secrets—and feel free to spread the word.
Why We Do It
The short answer: to figure each other out. Since we don’t ever really know what other people are thinking, collecting information from and about them—in effect, playing amateur detective—is as close as we can get to being inside their heads. “We’re always probing, trying to figure out the mystery within,” says Emrys Westacott, PhD, professor of philosophy at Alfred University in Alfred, New York, and author of the upcoming book The Virtues of Our Vices. Talking, even when it’s gossip, is one important way we get to know people through other people, agrees Susan Hafen, PhD, professor of communication at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah.
Sure, there are better ways to do it, but we really can’t help ourselves. Gossiping is part of our DNA. Think of it as a survival instinct: In order to stay alive and thrive, our prehistoric ancestors had to have a handle on the inner workings of their community—whom they could trust to hunt with, whom they should mate with. Gossip was how they found out. “We’re basically the descendants of a bunch of busybodies,” says Dr. McAndrew.
We may not need to gossip to survive in the same way as our ancestors, but it can help us figure out whom to trust (“No one has a bad word to say about Susie”) and whom to steer clear of (“Everyone’s talking about what Linda did”). It’s a way to navigate our complicated social networks, says Robin Dunbar, PhD, director of the Institute of Cognitive & Evolutionary Anthropology at the University of Oxford.
On the flip side, we also gossip to let others know who we are. Say you pass on a juicy nugget about a neighbor’s infidelity. Offering your opinion about it lets you show off your own moral fiber. In return, you find out whether the person you’re dishing with agrees with you. As you tsk-tsk together over the details, “what you’re really doing is saying, ‘We’re better than that,’” says Dr. Fisher. “You’re reaffirming and sharing your own values.”
The Upside of Gossip
In addition to releasing feelgood brain chemicals like dopamine, dishing also increases levels of progesterone, a hormone that reduces anxiety and stress, according to a recent University of Michigan study. Our well-being gets another boost from the fact that gossiping bonds us. “You laugh, you cry…you connect,” says Dr. Fisher. “You’re strengthening the relationship between you and the person you’re talking to.”
And in the workplace, being plugged into the rumor mill can give you a leg up—especially now. A 2008 study by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) found that over a 12- month period during the recession, 54 percent of HR professionals reported an increase in office gossip about impending layoffs. So chatting up coworkers not only nets useful day-to-day information, like your boss’s pet peeves, it can also give you a heads-up about the security of your job. “You hear things through the grapevine that ordinarily wouldn’t be put out in public,” says Dr. Westacott. “There’s no official memo for information like that, yet people need to know.”
Another plus: Gossip keeps us in line. According to a 2004 Florida State University study, it teaches us what’s normal and expected behavior, and dissuades us from doing the opposite. “Realizing that you might be talked about prevents you from behaving in unacceptable ways,” says Dr. McAndrew.
No surprise: Gossip can be hurtful, especially when it’s malicious talk that serves no purpose other than to throw someone under the bus. Not only is it exclusionary, but “what you put into the public domain could really damage someone’s reputation,” says Dr. Westacott. And with the advent of texting, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, dishing dirt now happens on a far grander and faster scale. “It used to take a lot longer for information to get from point A to point B,” says Dr. McAndrew. “Technology has moved ahead faster than our ability to manage it.”
Does that mean we’re gossiping more because we’re tethered to our tech 24/7? It’s hard to say, agree experts, since it’s a difficult phenomenon to measure. What has changed, they say, is how we do it—and the no-holds-barred information we share. “The threshold of acceptable privacy has changed,” says Dr. Westacott. “Older people are often amazed at what younger people are willing to put out there in the public domain. This voluntary transparency leads to problems…you post a photograph of someone drunk, and then he doesn’t get the job or the college acceptance”—or much worse. The disturbing proof: shocking headlines like that of the Rutgers University student who committed suicide after being outed online.
What’s the solution? Better self-censorship. “When in doubt, don’t!” says Dr. McAndrew. “You can always share something later if you want to, but you can’t take it back once it’s out of the bag.” Just because you know some hot gossip doesn’t mean you have to spread it. Weigh the pluses and minuses before you say anything. Ask yourself, Will telling this harm someone else, or is it all in good fun? Then let the answer be your guide.