Gossip Girl? Not Just a Show, but a Social and Scientific Phenomenon
By Kayla Downs
When you hear the word gossip, do visions of catty girls in middle and high school halls fill your head? You’re not alone, but have you ever wondered why people gossip? Turns out there is a reason behind why it is in our human nature to pass anecdotes from mouth to mouth, and it might not be as much of a vice as you think.
Gossip is defined as rumors or chatty talk of intimate nature. We are taught from a young age, with lessons and books about it in elementary school, that gossiping is a bad thing. No one wants to be gossiped about and sharing gossip makes you part of the problem. With this, it seems mysterious that as soon as you walk through the doors of middle school, various gossip whispers through the air. Gossip crosses all cultural boundaries and most age groups, and while many view it as a purely negative behavior, there are social benefits to gossip.
In a recent study by Lyons and Huges (2015), the motivations underlying gossip were researched. Looking at “the dark triad”: the traits of psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism, they saw correlations between frequency of those traits and gossip habits. Psychopathy is marked by egocentric and antisocial behaviors as well as a lack of empathy for others and little remorse for one’s actions. Narcissism, although similar to psychopathy, is more narrow, focusing on the idea of an inflated sense of self-importance. The least well-known of “The dark triad”, machiavellianism, is manipulative and deceitful behavior for one’s own benefit (Lyons & Hughes, 2015).
In this study, men and women rated themselves on a questionnaire which determined their levels of the dark triad qualities and their gossiping behavior. While men scored higher on all three qualities than women, there was no significant difference in scores between men and women on the gossiping variables (Lyons & Hughes, 2015). The study also found that mostly narcissism and psychopathy, not machiavellianism, contributed to the motivations for gossip. The study broke gossip motivations down into four categories: information gathering gossip, social enjoyment gossip, group protection gossip, and negative influence gossip. Each of these are evolutionary foundations, where gossip served to learn about others, including others who could be of competition, hence negative influence gossip. Gossip is a paradox of negative and positive factors, it now seems reasonable why we have been taught gossip is bad but we continue to engage in it anyway.
Another study by Francis McAndrew (2014) states that “gossip can be a way of learning the unwritten rules of social groups and cultures and an avenue for socializing new group members” and claims women have shown tendencies to gossip more than men. It goes on to highlight how we are most interested in gossip of rivals, mates, relatives, and those whose behavior can influence us, specially people of the same sex in the same age group as ourselves. (McAndrew, 2014). The first study showed us how men need more of the dark triad traits to engage in gossip, while women don’t and generally gossip more. McAndrew suggests that this is because evolutionarily speaking, the costs of direct, physical aggression are greater for women than men, women are more likely to engage in indirect aggression, such as aggressive gossip seen between competing females.
Science has proved what has been observed since the ancient chinese proverb, “the tongue is the sword of a woman, and she never lets it go rusty.” Females are more prone to gossip, especially in the ages of adolescence where competition is (or at least perceived) to be greater from other females. With the possible negative ramifications of gossip, it can be a vice. But this vice of gossiping can have mutual benefits for both parties involved as well. Gossiping can form stronger bonds between people, and be a way to share social norms and pass information.
McAndrew, F. T. (2014, April 18). The "sword of a woman": Gossip and female aggression. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1359178914000329
Lyons, M. T., & Hughes, S. (2015, May). Malicious Mouths? The Dark Triad and motivations for gossip. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S019188691500029X