Psst, want to hear a secret? Gossip can be good for us
Recent research suggests gossip increases co-operation, upholds the moral code, punishes the selfish and rewards the unselfish
“The damage done to the subject of the gossip is generally negligible, while the fun and fellow feeling created between the chatterers is considerable.” Photograph: Getty Images
A couple of weeks ago I bumped into a man I used to work with. We chatted for a bit about people we knew in journalism and I volunteered that so-and-so had just left his wife and was now shacked up with one of his underlings. My ex-colleague pursed his lips. I don’t do gossip, he said.
For about two seconds I felt ashamed of myself, but then I felt cross with him instead. What a prig. How can you be a former journalist and not do gossip?
Gossip has a bad name. The Oxford dictionary defines it disdainfully as “unconstrained conversation . . . about other people, typically involving details which are not confirmed as true”.
Yet it has always struck me as one of those rare guilty pleasures where pleasure outweighs guilt. The damage done to the subject of the gossip is generally negligible, while the fun and fellow feeling created between the chatterers is considerable.
However, according to recent research from Stanford University, published in Psychological Science , not only have I done no harm by gossiping, I have been making the world a finer place.
Talking about people behind their backs increases co-operation, upholds the moral code, punishes the selfish and rewards the unselfish. And if people know they get voted off the island for bad behaviour, they behave less badly.
If this is right, it suggests gossip is particularly important in offices. It helps us to know who to avoid, it undermines bullying bosses, it binds people together and shores up a company’s culture.
Soon after reading the study, I found myself at it again over coffee with a colleague. I mentioned a well- known broadcaster with whom I had worked in the past and said although he was clearly talented, there was something about him that was a bit, well, weird.
My colleague agreed. He too had worked with the man and said he was a prima donna and a bully, and that the only views he rated were his own.
I listened agog; instead of feeling sullied, I congratulated myself on having contributed to the public good by expressing disapproval of bullies and egotists.
But then I saw a weakness in the system. For gossip to promote good behaviour, it is not enough for tut-tutting to take place behind someone’s back. The subject has to get wind of it – which can be easier said than done. Next time I see the broadcaster, I’m not going to edge away in disgust; I’ll probably be all nicey-nicey.
Indeed, what is truly remarkable is that, given how much gossip there is (according to the anthropologist Robin Dunbar, two-thirds of all human conversation is gossip) and given how each of us must get gossiped about the whole time, how little we know about what people are saying about us behind our backs. I don’t have a clue what people say when I’m not around – which might be bad for my chances of improving, but it makes for an easier life.
There are various reasons why gossip does not usually get back to the person being gossiped about. First, as the whole point is that it is a) secret and b) usually considered of dodgy veracity, we are programmed not to act on it. An even bigger obstacle is that hierarchy trumps tittle-tattle every time. Voting people off the island on gossip grounds is particularly impossible if that person happens to be above you in the pecking order.
More fundamentally, there are two problems with the idea of gossip as a regulating, moral force.
The first is that the gossip needs to be mostly true – which is doubtful given its negative bias. “Psst, did you hear that x is a terrific, hardworking boss?” isn’t much of a story.
Second, gossip isn’t always motivated by our moral values. In spreading the gossip about the journalist’s concubine, I wasn’t necessarily upholding the sanctity of marriage. I was merely indicating I found the news a bit diverting.
Instead, the true value of gossip has nothing to do with the person being gossiped about and everything to do with the people doing it.
Last week I was introduced to a senior banker who turned out to have been at university at the same time as me.
He mentioned the name of a famous contemporary and then said darkly: “He had a quite a past. Nothing illegal, but wild.”
“Really?” I said. “Do tell.”
And so he told me how this legendary businessperson used to be a rabid womaniser, which we agreed was surprising as he wasn’t much of a looker.
This gossip served no social or moral purpose. It was in the deep past. It was tenuous. It was quite irrelevant to anything. And yet it was still valuable. It told me about this banker: I’m quite fun, but I’m not entirely to be trusted. – (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014)