Do you secretly find amusement in hearing about how Liz from Accounting hooked-up with Steve from Marketing during the office Christmas party? Don’t worry, you’re not alone.
We teach our children that gossiping isn’t nice behavior, and yet it’s still such a prevalent phenomenon in human society. According to experts, we spend about two thirds of our conversational time gossiping about others. This means we spend more time talking about other people compared to general topics like music, sports or your favorite hobby.
It’s a guilty pleasure for many despite the fact that it could potentially hurt other people’s feelings, damage reputations and perpetuate outright lies.
So why do we keep gossiping? Are we all mean-spirited people trying to tear each other down? Are we really no better than the Real Housewives of (insert your choice of fancy city)?
Fortunately a couple of studies have shown that while some gossiping is ill-intentioned, most of our gossip is actually neutral in nature. And generally, our motivation isn’t to harm others. In fact, much of our time may be spent gossiping because of these benefits:
It helps us learn about social norms without direct experience
Think back to the first week at your new job. I’m sure as you got to know your colleagues some might have filled you in about the bosses’ pet peeves. Or how eveyone hates it when Arlene is heading the team meetings because it just never seems to end. You most likely made mental notes about what you should and shouldn’t be doing based on these social “tips” that colleague just shared with you.
Social information like that helps us learn about what is acceptable or desireable behavior in the group, without having to make those mistakes ourselves. This would come in handy, especially if you’re in a fast paced work environment that requires you to keep up to speed with things ranging from work protocols to unspoken social protocols.
It’s one of the most effective ways to bond with others
The only thing nicer than bonding over a nice cup of coffee, is gossiping while having that coffee. It seems that when we gossip, it helps us to connect and feel closer to one another.
This study conducted by the University of Queensland demonstrated this concept when they analysed gossiping behavior in pairs of participants. They were shown videos of people on campus either littering or picking up litter (negative and positive social behavior). The pairs were more likely to gossip about negative than positive social behaviors, and also felt more bonded to one another as a result of gossiping.
In addition, this study has shown that gossiping causes increased levels of Oxytocin — a “happy” hormone associated with social bonding, sexual arousal and physical contact — to be released in the brain . So when we feel that connection with another person when we gossip, there’s a biological reason for it.
It keeps us on our toes
Contrary to what we might believe, gossip can even be beneficial to the group as a whole. None of us want to be target of the offices latest gossip. So that is often a strong motivator for us to keep in line with the norms and values of the group. This ultimately promotes group cohesion and prevents people from behaving selfishly.
For example, these researchers at Stanford University found that when participants ostracized members who were behaving selfishly in a game, these members were more likely to behave in the following rounds of the game.
We do it to protect one another
If you’re still not convinced, this study has shown that some gossip is actually done out of the altruistic motivation to help others. These researchers from The University of California, Berkeley, got participants to observe other people engage in a game where there would be one player who was not playing fairly. The results showed that the majority of participants sent “gossip notes” to other players warning them of unfair player. They were even willing to do this if they had to sacrifice the pay they would receive for participating in the experiment.
Therefore, it seems that most of us have an innate instinct to protect others from exploiters within or outside the group. And gossiping serves as a way of warning unsuspecting group members of these dangers. Maybe we shouldn’t feel so bad about warning our colleagues about a sleazy encounter with another co-worker.
However, the dark side of gossip still lurks
Many of the the studies over the past decade have highlighted the positive aspects of gossip. But current research has confirmed what we assumed all along about gossiping — it can hurt other people and reduce the overall trust within groups. Fortunately, this study found that the majority of our gossip is usually positive or neutral.
While the social dynamics of gossiping remains complex and paradoxical, what we do know is that it is a powerful social tool with the ability to either strengthen bonds or destroy relationships. Future studies hope to clarify the circumstances under which these positive or negative effects of gossip tend to prevail.
So the next time you’re in the office pantry waiting to hear the latest goss, you can feel slightly less guilty about it. Especially if it’s done with good intentions. But let’s just keep this between you and me.