Monthly Archives: February 2012

The Hard Facts: Gossip Girl

It’s Research Wednesday! Where I share the latest, or most fascinating, in the science of friendship.

“For centuries, gossip has been dismissed as salacious, idle chatter that can damage reputations and erode trust. But a new study from the University of California, Berkeley, suggests rumor-mongering can have positive outcomes such as helping us police bad behavior, prevent exploitation and lower stress.” (“Gossip Can Have Social and Psychological Benedits” ; ScienceDaily.com 1/17/2012)

Admission: I like gossip. I shouldn’t, I know, but all my interests line up to thrive on it: I’m a talker. I’m fascinated by social relationships. And I’m super curious, sometimes about other people’s business. (It’s the journalist in me! I swear.)

As an adult, it’s not ideal to be keen on gossip. Yet there’s something about it that brings people together. In MWF Seeking BFF, I tell the story of when my coworker uncovered one of our consultants’ pay rate. The guy didn’t do much other than sit in on phone calls, and yet he was making at least twice as much as most of us. When we found his invoice at the printer—complete with his hourly rate—the women in my department, from assistants to senior staff, gathered to whisper and, yes, gossip about the finding. And you know what? It brought together a somewhat divided team. Only for a few hours, maybe, but every little bit counts.

According to this latest study, “gossip can be therapeutic. Volunteers’ heart rates increased when they witnessed someone behaving badly, but this increase was tempered when they were able to pass on the information to alert others.” The idea is that if your gossip is “prosocial,” meaning it’s used to warn or protect others from untrustworthy individuals, it can make you feel better both physically and emotionally. This prosocial gossip is in contrast to, say, US Weekly gossip, the “voyeuristic rumor-mongering about the ups and downs of such tabloid celebrities as Kim Kardashian and Charlie Sheen.”

Consider yourself a gossip? The authors of this study say that “people need not feel bad about revealing the vices of others, especially if it helps save someone from exploitation.” Of course, this is a slippery slope. It’s easy to convince yourself that the gossip you’re spreading is helping someone. Know that your boss has an alcohol problem? Spread the word! It might help her underlings feel better about themselves! Is an old classmate a binge eater? Well, that’ll definitely make her one-time nemesis happy.

And yet, these don’t seem to be productive uses of gossip, whether or not they make some innocent bystander feel better. To take the “good gossip” test, ask yourself one question: “By sharing this piece of information, will I protect someone from getting hurt?”

When it comes to gossip, I’m no saint. Not by a long shot. I get a great sense of relief when I share news that’s been nagging at me (even news that isn’t mine to share). It makes me feel like I’ve gotten something off my chest. But I’m going to try and use this one-question gossip test moving forward. It’s noble!

I’ll report back on my success.

In the meantime, let’s dish: Do you like gossip? Do you believe it can be beneficial?

Are you in Portland? If so, come listen to me read from MWF Seeking BFF tomorrow at the Powell’s at Cedar Hills Crossing! And tonight I’ll be at the Olympia Timberland Library. Hope to meet some of you Pacific Northwest readers!

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