Gossip isn't all bad
Swapping salacious stories can be thrilling, but can also leave behind a guilty conscience. But what if some of your rumor remorse could be alleviated? Recent studies suggest that under certain circumstances, gossip can be beneficial — even healthy. And while this research doesn't necessarily excuse spreading the sordid details of a friend's love life, it does ease a bit of the shame that accompanies a Perez Hilton addiction.
The very notion of gossip can be tricky to define. How does a snarky comment about a coworker compare to a random celebrity-centered rant? In a recent issue of Scientific American Mind
, Professor Frank T. McAndrew offered this widely accepted definition: "the practice [of gossip] involves talk about people who are not present and this talk is relaxed, informal and entertaining. Typically, the topic of conversation also concerns information that we can make moral judgments about."
Gossip actually a sign of evolution
Why exactly do all humans seem to have such a lust for gossip? Blame it on our ancestors. According to McAndrew, our predecessors lived in intimate groups in which members had to rely on each other, but also engage in competition for limited resources. Those who had the savvy to gather information about their fellow group members achieved more success and passed their knowledge-seeking genes on to subsequent generations. Hence, our desire to get the scoop on friends, colleagues and enemies may be innate.
Gossip ironically is moralistic in nature
McAndrew, along with other researchers believes that when controlled, gossip can be a major asset to humans. Individuals not only forge bonds by sharing information, but they effectively maintain the norms and tenets of their group culture. When one person is the target of gossip, the group quickly identifies him or her as a violator of its standards. After all, by McAndrew's definition, gossip is usually characterized by information we can evaluate on a moral level. So by outing those who defy social ethics, the group as a whole can prosper and thrive.
When gossip isn't good
So does this mean distributing photocopies of your rival's diary is a clever way to climb the social ladder? Not exactly. Because our modern society no longer deals with the perils of prehistoric civilization, today's information grapevine can be quite damaging. Although we no longer rely on the primitive functions of gossip to inform and protect our social groups, we continue to engage in it. In his article, McAndrew asserts that "in its rawest form [gossip] is a strategy used by individuals to further their own reputations and selfish interests at the expense of others."
Gossip brings people together
And what about the barrage of celebrity-focused magazines, entertainment shows, blogs and tell-all books? If humans evolved to gossip as a method of protecting one's social status while eliminating threatening outsiders, why do we salivate over the latest celeb scandals? According to McAndrew and other researchers, our brains simply haven't evolved to make the distinction between the next-door neighbor and Angelina Jolie. Both faces are familiar, and we may be equally informed about each individual's intimate life details. Besides being recognizable, famous faces can often serve as conversation starters or provide a common ground for people with little else in common. McAndrew believes celebrities "facilitate the types of informal interaction that help people become comfortable in new surroundings."
Some gossip may result in shame
But just as with any other kind of gossip, celebrity-focused rumors and scandals can be detrimental as well. "I stopped reading [celebrity gossip blog] Perez Hilton about five months ago, and let me tell you, I couldn't feel better about it," says San Francisco native, Erin Shea. "I started realizing the way he writes is so negative and judgmental, it made me feel like a bad person after reading it."
Successful — healthy — gossiping is about being a team player
So it seems the gossip rule of thumb is to acknowledge it as a basic adaptive skill that shouldn't be repressed, but to engage in the rumor mill with caution. McAndrew concludes his article with the assertion that "successful gossiping is about being a good team player and sharing key information with others in a way that will not be perceived as self-serving and about understanding when to keep your mouth shut." And perhaps for those like Shea who can't get enough of the latest scoop, the best bet is to be choosy about the source. She says, "The gossip I want gives me the pictures and the story, does it in a funny manner, and never once tries to pass on moral advice." Like anything else in life, to keep gossip from being detrimental, moderation is key. Whisper wisely.
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