A Psychologist Explains Why People Gossip—and the Reason Might Surprise You
Everybody gossips. Sure, we like to think that our daily conversations are strictly productive idea exchanges and debates about life’s unanswered questions. But in reality, we all talk about other people.
In fact, a new study published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science found that the typical person spends about 52 minutes per day gossiping. The surprise, though, is that most people aren’t walking around whispering “Did you hear what so and so did last weekend?” in their coworkers’ ears. Instead, they’re just sharing information about the people in their lives with those around them.
That’s the simple definition of gossiping, per the study authors: talking about a person who isn’t present. It's not necessarily about spreading malicious rumors or embarrassing stories, just sharing information. You gossip when you tell someone that next weekend your cousin is getting married, your best friend is starting a new job, or your daughter has her big dance recital coming up.
The new study found that most of those 52 minutes we spend gossiping each day involve sharing the harmless (and, let’s be honest, sometimes boring) details of everyday life—not trashing your colleague who got way too drunk at happy hour.
So why do we use up nearly an hour of precious time chatting about such ho-hum details of other people’s lives? Mark Leary, PhD, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University who specializes in social and personal psychology, explains it to Health this way: Gossiping is a fundamental human instinct because our lives are deeply rooted in groups. We not only live in groups, but we also depend on the people in our groups to survive.
“In light of that, they need to have as much information as possible about the people around them in order to know what various other people are like, who can and can't be trusted, who breaks group rules, who is friends with who, what other people's personalities and viewpoints are, and so on,” Leary says.
Think about your groups. You depend on your family for love and compassion, and in many cases food and housing. You depend on your friends for social interaction and companionship. You depend on your employer for money and maybe health insurance. So if your mother tells you your father lost his job, you know you might need to find a different way to manage grocery bills and rent. If your coworker tells you that your boss is going to lay people off, you prepare to search for another source of income and insurance. Gossip is how we survive.
Gossiping for survival is as old as humanity itself. Every prehistoric human relied on other members of their tribe for things like food, shelter, and protection. If the member who usually hunts for your food suddenly gets sick and can’t hunt, you might starve if no one tells you that person is sick. If gossip of their illness spreads, you know you need to search for another food source.
Gossip doesn’t only teach us about the person who’s the subject of the conversation, but also about the person doing the talking, Leary says. “I can learn things about your attitudes, beliefs, and ways of dealing with people by seeing who and what you gossip about. Even if I don't join in, just hearing people gossip tells me things about what they think is important, whether they can be trusted to keep secrets, and so on.”
When you do join in, gossip can also strengthen your social bonds. A 2014 study published in the journal Psychological Science found gossip improves a group's cooperation and makes members less selfish.
It also found that gossip can serve as a way of identifying and ostracizing untrustworthy members of the group. But all hope isn’t lost for those who are ostracized. Often the person who was shunned actually learns from the experience and improves their behavior, the study found. Just the threat of being excluded is an incentive for people to cooperate.
Of course, we can’t forget that gossip sometimes does turn ugly. “Some gossiping has negative consequences for the target,” Leary says, “and some can have negative consequences for the gossiper, such as if the target finds out, or if listeners conclude that the gossiper is an untrustworthy busybody who can't mind his or her own business.”
If your mother tells you that your father lost their job, your father might get mad at your mother for not giving him time to tell you himself. If your boss finds out that your coworker told you about the layoffs, your boss might lose trust in your coworker. Gossip can tear us apart just as easily as it can bring us together. “But at heart, sharing information about other people is important,” Leary says.