Check out this provocative excerpt from an old Atlantic article that popped up in my recommended reading feed:
Despite gossip’s dodgy reputation, a surprisingly small share of it—as little as 3 to 4 percent—is actually malicious. And even that portion can bring people together. Researchers […] found that if two people share negative feelings about a third person, they are likely to feel closer to each other than they would if they both felt positively about him or her.
It is difficult to know exactly what the writer means here by “malicious” or “negative feelings,” but the author’s point is clear. By gossiping with Friend 1 about Friend 2, you and Friend 1 have an intimate moment that strengthens your interpersonal bond. That doesn’t sound so bad, eh?
The article goes on:
Gossip may even make us better people. A team of Dutch researchers reported that hearing gossip about others made research subjects more reflective; positive gossip inspired self-improvement efforts, and negative gossip made people prouder of themselves. In another study, the worse participants felt upon hearing a piece of negative gossip, the more likely they were to say they had learned a lesson from it. Negative gossip can also have a prosocial effect on those who are gossiped about. Researchers at Stanford and UC Berkeley found that once people were ostracized from a group due to reputed selfishness, they reformed their ways in an attempt to regain the approval of the people they had alienated.
Gossip, then, can promote self-reflection, increase your self-esteem, and motivate self-reform. One can imagine how that might work:
- Self-Reflection: “Well sheesh, so-and-so seems like a jerk, I wonder if I’m ever like that?”
- Self-Esteem: “Holy smokes, good thing I’m not as messed up as that person over there. I feel a little better about myself now.”
- Self-Reform: “Wait, what? Everyone thinks I’m selfish with my time and money? I mean, I wish they would just be honest and tell me that, but I guess I better shape up and prove them wrong.”
And yet these aren’t the best things about gossip, according to the article. Its crowning achievement may actually strike at the heart of identity-formation and human flourishing:
Dunbar [an anthropologist quoted in the article] argues that idle chatter with and about others gave early humans a sense of shared identity and helped them grow more aware of their environment, thus incubating the complex higher functioning that would ultimately yield such glories of civilization as the Talmud, Pascal, and Ann Landers.
I haven’t delved into the source material being examined here, but I have several problems with the article’s line of reasoning. The first is that gossip is described simply as “talk between at least two people about absent others.” I am pretty sure it is more than that. Look up any dictionary definition, and you’ll see that it involves exchanging unverified stories and reports, especially where one’s private affairs are concerned. Which means someone is usually portrayed in a bad way without the opportunity to defend themselves.
The article’s conclusion reinforces the problem when it conflates gossip with “idle chatter.” The two may have some features in common, but they are not the same. There is a world of a difference between talking about the weather with a friend and repeating rumors about how your neighbor supposedly hasn’t paid HOA dues in months, and there are reports that he abuses his children for minor offenses, and shouldn’t he be investigated?
Secondly, note how the article says that gossip results in people “growing closer.” In almost all of the cases mentioned, gossip benefits some people at the expense of others. That ought to be a red flag. Granted, there is evidence that the victims of gossip can reform themselves based on the gossip that they become aware of. But is such reform really a positive and sustainable good if it is based on (1) feedback as roundabout and flimsy as gossip, and (2) something as fickle as the approval of one’s peers? I’m not saying, of course, that good can’t come out of such situations. But it would be false to say that gossip is good merely because it has the potential to produce good.
This indeed is one of the challenges with leaning heavily on scientific studies to draw conclusions about human morals. Science can give us data on how gossip works: how it manifests itself, how it affects people, how we respond to it, etc. Science cannot tell us what to do with this data; we must interpret it. The author of the Atlantic article interpreted it to argue that certain byproducts of gossip can be laudable—then took that a step further to say that gossip itself must be good. That is a classic ends-and-means fallacy. You may as well say that despite the bad rap it gets, fake news is good because it unites like-minded individuals over shared interests.
What would help is a more holistic definition of what gossip is, including its more destructive tendencies. Gossip often create false impressions about others. Gossip often tarnishes someone’s reputation. Gossip often compromises trust. Can you gossip in a way that avoids these tendencies? I would venture to guess that you cannot; or, that if you could, you are no longer gossiping per se, but rather engaging in honest storytelling.
Here is a thought experiment that might be useful. If you were to talk to Acquaintance 1 about Acquaintance 2, ask yourself: What if Acquaintance 2 could hear everything you said? How would that change what you share, your tone of voice, the gestures you use? Consider it the other way, too: How would you react if you were to discover that you have been gossiped about? Would you get defensive and anxious, or play it down as inconsequential? Try to learn from it? Wish that the gossip at least were as fair as possible? You might feel a mix of all these things, but if nothing else, you’d probably want some fairness: to not have your actions or words distorted, and to be given the benefit of the doubt. But then notice what has happened. The value of gossip is no longer being evaluated on the basis of whether it draws the gossipers closer together. It is bringing in criteria related to equality, compassion, and respect. That these virtues go unmentioned in the article is telling, and should remind us not to take scientific studies, or interpretations thereof, at face value.