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Why gossip can be good for you, even if it’s mean

The Independent logo The Independent 14/5/2019 Olivia Petter
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We’ve all been guilty of gossiping at least once in our lives – why else do offices have water coolers? But despite our suspicions that it might not be the nicest thing to do, it turns out that sharing stories about people might not be as toxic a habit as we might think.

In fact, according to new research, most gossip isn’t actually malicious and and it can even be beneficial to us, psychologists say, because it helps us form valuable social alliances.

The study, published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, is based on an analysis of five existing studies with data on 467 people who agreed to have all of their conversation recorded for two to five days.

Sound files were coded for valence (positive, negative or neutral), subject (acquaintance and celebrity) and topic (social information, physical appearance, and achievement).

Each participant also completed a personality questionnaire.

The researchers found that on the whole, gossip tended to be neutral as opposed to positive or negative. Women were also found to gossip more than men, but only in a “neutral” manner ie they mostly shared information about other people as opposed to speaking negatively about them.

Megan Robbins, an assistant psychology professor at University of California, Riverside, commented: “We actually found that the overwhelming majority of gossip was neutral. About three-quarters of the conversation we heard in our sampled conversations was neither positive nor negative.”

However, for Dr Elena Martinescu, a postdoctoral researcher at King’s College London who has studied gossip in the workplace, gossiping can be beneficial, even if the conversation is negative.

“Gathering information about others helps us understand them better,” she tells The Independent. “More generally gossip helps us learn what is expected of us in order to be a good group member, and what might happen if we break social norms.”

It’s also a form of social bonding, she adds, “because it can help us find others who will share our opinions and may offer us social support, for example by talking about a conflict you have with a colleague – you may find an ally in your conversation partner.”

“By sharing negative information about someone we might help our conversation partners decide how to interact with the target of our gossip.”

There are, of course, some downsides to gossip, Martinescu notes. For example, when it is engineered to serve the gossiper and intentionally harm the person who is the target.

But ultimately, gossiping is part of daily life, she explains, and it would be unrealistic for someone to go about their day without ever encountering or engaging in gossip – the study found that people spend an average of 52 minutes per day gossiping.

The key is to pay attention to how we gossip, Martinescu concludes, and how it may affect others, particularly the target.

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