You know what they say—nobody likes a gossip. But what if there’s more merit to spilling the tea than you thought? According to a study from the Computational Social Affective Neuroscience Laboratory (COSAN) of Dartmouth, gossip isn’t just normal. It could actually be good for us.
And no, this isn’t just us talking smack.
Highlights Of The Study
The 2021 Dartmouth study outlines the following main points:
- “Gossip is a multi-faceted behavior that reflects multiple social functions.”
- “Gossip facilitates learning from others when direct observation is not possible.”
- “Gossip builds social connections and aligns social impressions and behavior.”
- “Gossip increases cooperative group behavior in public goods games.”
So, the real question is—how?
Gossip Encompasses More Than You Think
First things first, let’s discuss what gossip actually is. General social expectations consider gossip to be negative, low-brow, and largely female-driven. Not your style? Well, you might be more of a gossip than you realize.
Research published in Social Psychology and Personality Science in 2019 found that roughly 14% of our daily conversations count as gossip. Moreover, the gossip tends to be “neutral, rather than positive or negative, and about social information,” the study’s abstract reads. “These naturalistic observation findings dispel some stereotypes about this prevalent yet misunderstood behavior.”
Not all gossip looks like two Nosy Nellies snickering in the corner. It can look like water cooler chit-chat about the office, a private Zoom meeting between two coworkers, or a quick exchange on social media.
Getting A Hang Of The Gossip Game
Assuming you’re not spreading malicious, false rumors or purposefully belittling someone to gain social status, gossip has an important role in everyday life. The COSAN demonstrated this with a simple public goods game.
In the game, participants played 10 rounds in six-person groups. Players got $10 in each round and could choose to either keep it or invest the money back into a group fund. Players then split the total savings equally among their teams.
This type of game inherently creates tension between selfish and cooperative players. Researchers would either dissipate or enhance this tension by allowing (or prohibiting) members to observe the behaviors of all their teammates. In instances where this was prohibited, teammates could only engage with a few other group players.
Gossip Vs. No Gossip
When researchers restricted players’ access to information about their teammates, spontaneous conversations between teammates occurred more frequently. “Participants relied on second-hand information from their partners to stay informed about other people’s behavior, illustrating how gossip enables individuals to learn from the experiences of others when direct observation is not feasible,” a media release states.
Conversely, “when players could directly observe all of their group members, they tended to chit-chat and discussed a wider array of topics.” The findings also found that participants who chatted with one another felt the most connected at the end of each game. They also tended to share similar ideas of other teammates.
This phenomenon speaks to another plus side to gossip: “By exchanging information with others, gossip is a way of forming relationships. It involves trust and facilitates a social bond that is reinforced as further communication takes place,” Luke Chang, director of COSAN, explains.
Gossip Is The Glue That Keeps Us Together
The study’s media release explains that in a typical public goods game, players contribute less over time. (Instead of donating their money to the team fund, for example, they would choose to keep it for themselves under the assumption that others are doing the same.)
“However, in this study, cooperation declined less over time when players could privately communicate. Communication increased collective cooperation.” Gossip was essentially the glue that held the team together, even as some players exhibited uncooperative behavior.
The study found that the role of gossip is consistent with creating a “shared reality in which friends and colleagues find common bonds, establish alliances, exchange personal information, and discuss the behavior of others to establish a consensus of socially acceptable behavior.”
The Good Side Of Gossip
To be fair, this study is ripe for misconstruction. The COSAN’s findings don’t give you the green light to run someone’s name in the mud. But it does suggest that the largely harmless conversations you share with your closest coworker or friend are just that: not harmful. In fact, they could be bringing you closer together, solidifying social expectations, and teaching you both.
There are also delicate social constructs to consider—this Instagram post from the Reductress comes to mind.
The line between neutral and negative gossip can become muddy when a non-marginalized group begins to talk about a marginalized one. Microaggressions can quickly turn a conversation toward slander if left unchecked.
But otherwise, don’t be afraid to gab a bit. The scuttlebutt has it that this kind of chit-chat has ample social purpose and benefit.