Our penchant for gossip is sometimes referred to as the root of all evil, but it can help us adapt to a new social environment, help us improve on ourselves and reveal potential threats, according to a new study at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.
"For example, hearing positive stories about others may be informative, because they suggest ways to improve oneself," says lead researcher Elena Martinescu. "Hearing negative gossip may be flattering, because it suggests that others (the gossip target) may function less well than we do. However, negative gossip may also be threatening to the self, because it suggests a malign social environment in which one may easily fall victim to negative treatments."
In the two-part study, 183 participants were asked to recall in an online survey a time when they received gossip, positive or negative. Researchers then assessed the gossip, pertaining to how it could affect the receiver in terms of self-improvement, self-promotion and self-protection.
The participants in the second study were asked to play the role of a sales agent and pretend they had written a job description that researchers presented to them. They then received either negative or positive gossip about another's performance.
The two experiments had similar results: Those who had received positive gossip were motivated by someone else's success, and those who had received negative gossip showed an increasing desire to protect themselves but also elicited pride.
What came as a surprise to researchers was that the make-believe workers in the second study were more alert after receiving either positive or negative gossip and they had expected it to have that affect only if the gossip was positive.
Researchers conclude that gossip isn't so bad after all, and there's no need to eliminate it. What's best, says Martinescu, is to accept it as natural and stay grounded in light of the potential negative consequences.
"Receiving gossip about other people is a valuable source of knowledge about ourselves, because we implicitly compare ourselves with the people we hear gossip about," says Martinescu.
The study was published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.