When people think of gossip, it’s often an image of mean high school girls smacking gum and trading rumors about an unsuspecting third party. And laughing- always the laughing. It’s hard to believe that gossip could ever be more than an illicit derisive past time. But what if the rumors were
true? Gossip could then serve as a protective and cooperative enterprise: sharing negative information about a third party that in turn protects others from that behavior. Several bad date and vendor review websites come to mind.
Researchers at UC Berkeley are looking at just this kind of communication, labeled prosocial gossip, to see if it indeed is used in this way. The study had participants watch individuals play a game where one person cheated in order to keep more money. Their heart rate went up, and they felt an increase of negative feelings on behalf of the victim of the game. Participants eagerly took the opportunity to warn (i.e. gossip with) future players of the cheater in the game. It was only by gossiping that their heart rate went down and their negative feelings were ameliorated. Gossip used in this way can help you decrease your feelings of injustice and safeguard those around you from potential harm. Go ahead- write that negative review! Warn others about that guy misusing the dating site!
Of course, not everyone gossips to protect others. Sometimes it just feels good. In fact, holding similar negative opinions towards a third party has been shown to bring strangers closer together. Why? When you share a lightly held negative belief with a stranger- and this belief is reciprocated- you feel like you know them better (and more than if you shared a similarly positive belief). Have you ever been on a date and bonded over your mutual dislike of some restaurant, band, or movie star? This is another type of gossip in action. One reason why this might be a bonding situation is that sharing negative beliefs is somewhat of a risk- if it is not shared, people may want to distance themselves.
There are plenty of ways in which gossip can be destructive. Gossiping with malicious intent or as a form of indirect aggression has damaging results. However, there are some instances where gossip not only helps you physically and mentally, it helps others as well.
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