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How Gossip Works

Gossip's Bad Reputation

The Basic Law of Rumor
In "The Psychology of Rumor," G.W. Allport and L. Postman describe a basic law of rumor. According to the law, a rumor’s strength is approximately equal to its importance to the person concerned times the ambiguity of the evidence: R ≈ i x a. However, critics point out that Allport and Postman have no empirical evidence for the law and assert that they ignored factors like the emotional context of the rumor.

Gossip has a pretty bad reputation. Nearly every major world religion cautions against gossiping and spreading rumors. For example, the book of Leviticus, found in the Christian Bible and the Jewish Torah, states, "Thou shalt not go up and down as a tale-bearer among thy people" [ref]. Gossip is also contrary to the concept of right speech, which is part of the Eightfold Path to enlightenment that is central to Buddhism. Many Islamic texts forbid both speaking and listening to gossip [ref].

In general, the secular world looks down on gossip as well. Parents, self-help books and counselors caution people to avoid gossip. Books on business management present gossip as a threat to an organization's health and stability because it decreases morale and wastes employees' time. In the United States, the nonprofit organization Words Can Heal advises people that gossip is dangerous and harmful and offers advice on how to stop.

A woman gossiping about her boyfriend's stinky feet on the telephone
Although adults spend up to two-thirds of their conversational time gossiping, only 5 percent of it is spent on negative gossip.

But most people gossip anyway, and in spite of its nefarious reputation, gossip doesn't always involve spreading untruths or malice. Research suggests that adults -- regardless of gender -- spend between one fifth and two thirds of their conversational time gossiping but spend only 5 percent of that time on negative gossip [Cohen, Dunbar].

primate societies
Image courtesy Mike Swope/MorgueFile
Some researchers theorize that gossip works in human societies the same way that grooming does in primate societies.

In general, researchers haven't always been interested in gossip. Many have thought of it as background noise -- or, in some cases, as foreground noise. Gossip is so prevalent that some people do it without realizing it, and this prevalence has made some researchers view it as something to be ignored rather than studied. In other words, linguists and social scientists have viewed gossip as nothing more than idle chatter, the conversational equivalent of static.

However, when scientists have studied gossip, they've come up with some pretty interesting theories and conclusions. Some researchers believe that gossip started as a way for early humans to learn about their neighbors and determine who they could trust, making it a necessary tool for survival. Robin Dunbar, author of "Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language," theorizes that gossip works in human societies the same way grooming does in primate societies, but more efficiently. Dunbar goes so far as to theorize that language evolved so that people could gossip and more effectively establish and defend social groups.

In the next section we'll look at the benefits of gossip.