It seems almost ironic: no-one wants to be known as a gossip, but when it comes to dishing the dirt, we’re all ears. In 2011, the celebrity gossip industry reportedly raked in a shocking $3bn annually, and now with social media giving anyone with a smartphone their 15 minutes of fame, we’re subject to a constant stream of salacious information. “Did you see what she wore last night?”, “Look what he posted on Instagram!”… We discuss the lives of Hollywood megastars and our real-life relationships in strangely similar ways.
The age-old quote, “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people” is still going strong. So why does gossip still get the best of even the most intelligent among us?
Evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar thinks he has the answer. In his analyses, he found around two-thirds of all conversations were based around social topics; the remaining time dedicated to discussing more ‘intellectual’ pursuits such as music and politics. Dunbar claims gossip “is what makes human society as we know it possible”, giving humans a way to learn about cultural norms, set moral boundaries, bond with others and even gauge their own success and social standing.
So if gossip can stop us making social faux pas, earn us new friends and even provide physiological relief (as one study found) – doesn’t that mean we should all be doing more of it? It depends on what kind of gossiping you’re doing.
Keeping it positive, i.e. gossiping about someone achieving something or doing something well, has been found to have self-improvement value for those involved. However, when the tone is negative, things get a whole lot more complicated. On the one hand, sharing an unfavourable opinion of a person with someone else is actually more conductive to bonding, as negative gossip can make both parties feel better about themselves. On the other, negative gossip makes people fearful they might be the ones to get slated next.
And not only does malicious tittle-tattle make you seem untrustworthy, it could also make you look just as bad as the person you’re criticising. Calling someone out for being arrogant? Whoever you’re talking to will likely perceive you as having the same flaw. Psychologists call this phenomenon 'spontaneous trait transference', and it applies to positive comments as well.
Ready to ditch the habit yet? Next time you’re itching to gossip and you know the subject’s less than savoury, remember the wise words of leading psychiatrist Dr. Howard Forman: “Is ten minutes of pleasure worth ten weeks of misery? People may look at you as a great source of gossip, but not as a great human being.” Amen.
The 3 questions to ask yourself before gossiping:
Are you being positive or negative?
Is this personal information someone wouldn’t want revealed?
Would you be ashamed to share this in the person’s presence?