How Gossip Works

Gossip Benefits

Failsafe Against Lying
Most people believe that lying is wrong, and that's one of the reasons so much gossip begins with "I heard" or "someone told me." Attributing a statement to someone else takes the responsibility for its accuracy away from the person speaking. But this technicality doesn't make it ethical to gossip. In "The Ethics of Gossiping" in the International Journal of Applied Philosophy, Emrys Westacott uses flow charts to help people decide whether their gossip is ethical.

Dunbar's idea might sound a little far-fetched, but researchers report that gossip has a lot in common with grooming, besides the stereotype of women gossiping in a beauty parlor:

  • Gossiping is enjoyable. Many people gossip just for fun or to blow off steam.
  • When you gossip with someone, you and the person you're talking to are displaying reciprocal trust. The people you chose to gossip with are people you trust not to use the information that you're sharing against you.
  • Gossip encourages social bonding. The people you gossip with become part of a group -- everyone else is outside of your group.

Regardless of whether it is just an advanced form of grooming, gossip can play a lot of different roles in social interactions. When gossiping, people:

  • Entertain each other
  • Influence one another's opinions
  • Exchange important information
  • Point out and enforce social rules
  • Learn from others' mistakes

A lot of the time, people could learn the same information about social rules and standards through observation. However, observing people's behavior takes longer and requires more effort than gossip does. In other words, gossip can help people learn how to behave and how to understand social cues faster and more efficiently than direct observation can.

This doesn't mean that all gossip is good, though. Many people engage in malicious or vicious gossip out of a desire to harm others or as a guilty pleasure. Sometimes, it's because they enjoy feelings of superiority, smugness, vindication or schadenfreude -- the satisfaction obtained from the misfortunes of others. People also spread negative gossip to increase their own social status at the expense of other people's.

Because of all of this, it's hard to support gossip as a necessary social tool or discredit it as an unnecessary social evil. Next, we'll examine these complexities more thoroughly using some specific examples.