Why Do We Gossip? A Deeper Look Into Our Behavior
Let’s face it: we all love to gossip. It’s fun, irresistible, and… so wrong.
It’s so wrong that some of us actually try to keep our lips sealed to avoid hurting the people being gossiped about. However, even the most virtuous among us can’t help but perk up our ears whenever a new piece of juicy gossip surfaces.
Even though gossiping can be so bad and hurtful that it leaves us feeling guilty and ashamed about partaking in it, we still do it. We indulge in gossip so much that there’s an entire industry that revolves around it! Tabloids, gossip websites, and even esteemed fashion magazines like Cosmopolitan are dedicated to fulfilling our primal need to discuss other people’s lives. Even the news industry isn’t above it. Actually, it thrives on gossip.
Did you know that TMZ.com is worth 2.4 billion dollars? It rakes in $82,192 a day, $2.5 million a month, and $29.6 million a year. The website gets almost 4 million visitors a day. What exactly does TMZ.com do? It merely covers Hollywood gossip and assists in spreading celebrity rumors, whether they’re true or not. In essence, TMZ.com is nothing more than an online tabloid… yet it makes so much money because it indulges our need to gossip.
Why do we gossip? Why do we spend a lot of time dissecting, criticizing, and discussing other people’s lives? Why do we feel the need to find out what crazy shenanigans your wild coworker or Lindsay Lohan is up to now? What drives us to this type of behavior that takes up a lot of time that could’ve been used constructively?
We are hard-wired to gossip… literally.
Our ancestors gossiped a lot – not because they were bored, but it was so they could bond with each other. Researchers believed that gossip helped our ancestors figure out their social structures by pinpointing who had power and who didn’t. Gossiping also helped people find mates, build trust, and peacefully cooperate with each other.
The very existence of gossip discouraged humans to behave carelessly and selfishly (to avoid gaining a bad reputation). Because of that, gossip was an important aspect of a civilized society.
Because our ancestors relied on gossip so much, humankind has evolved to crave gossip as a “primal need”. It is believed that we are born with intrigue and a basic curiosity about people with whom we come in contact with.
In fact, the vast majority of researchers, psychologists, and neuroscientists agree that gossip is actually a great social mechanism because of the reasons stated above. However, we might have evolved to take gossip too far. It seems that we are indulging in malicious gossip more than we do good-natured gossip. Are we really?
Robin Dunbar says yes.
A professor of Evolutionary Anthropology at the University of Oxford, Dunbar discovered that our ancestors engaged in good-natured gossip in order to benefit their entire community. For example, they would talk about which men could hunt better, which seamstress made the best clothes, or whether or not the grocer was short-changing his customers. Whether or not the gossip was actually true, they believed that they were merely sharing information to help each other and the community as a whole.
Today, we hardly have to engage in that type of gossip. We have the news, reality T.V. shows (we’re looking at you, Guy Fieri), and even Yelp to do all that work for us. If we don’t tittle-tattle for the benefit of others, then what on earth do we spend 66% of our conversation talking about?
Dunbar says, “[Our conversations revolve around] personal relationships and experiences, our likes and dislikes, others’ behavior, who is doing what with whom, and whether it’s a good or bad thing; who is in and who is out”. In other words, we mostly gossip for our own personal gain. We actually love Schadenfreude (a German word that means pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others).
Think about it, the tabloids are usually plastered with headlines like:
- John Travolta’s Secret Boyfriend Revealed! Kelly Preston ‘Beyond Devastated’!
- Courtney Love Kills Daughter’s Cat!
- Denise Richards Does Not Want Charlie Sheen Around Daughters!
How often do we see headlines that read, “John Travolta and Kelly Preston Have Nice Candlelit Dinner Together”? This probably happens a lot more times than we think – perhaps even once a week – and certainly more times than John Travolta is actually caught with another man. Why don’t we hear about the good things other people do? When the whole Charlie Sheen debacle happened, it was all over the news like white on rice, but now that he’s supposedly doing well, we barely hear about him. Why is that?
Don’t be so quick to point your finger at the tabloids and say, “It’s them crazy media mongers – they know that bad news sells.” That’s true, but you know very well that you do the exact same thing. We all do.
How often do you rush home from the office to excitedly share the news that one of your co-workers got promoted? Now, let’s say that a few weeks later, the same co-worker gets fired because she was caught doing the nasty with the married janitor in the copy room. Not only would you share the juicy tidbit with your family, but you’d also post it all over Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Reddit, Tumblr, and any other social media site you can think of. Bad news sells, indeed.
Why do we gossip maliciously?
There are many different reasons why we take pleasure in hearing bad things about other people, but the main one is insecurity. Insecure people feel the need to drag other people down just to make themselves look better. Gossiping could also be due to jealousy, boredom, or just sadism. Whatever the reason, people who constantly gossip are unfulfilled with their own lives. Always remember that when you’re the one being gossiped about.
How to avoid gossip
While some gossip is good, most gossip isn’t. Not only does gossip usually end in hurt feelings and damaged relationships, but it also leaves you feeling conscience-stricken. Avoiding gossip may be hard to do, but you’ll end up feeling happier and more fulfilled than if you had caved into gossip. Here are some tips on how to take the high road when it comes to discussing other people:
Keep yourself busy.
Have you ever heard of the saying, “an idle mind is the devil’s workshop”? It certainly applies here. Busy people simply don’t have the time to indulge in gossip or even listen to gossip about others. Usually, people who don’t have enough things to do are the ones who engage in gossip. It’s because their brains have fewer diversions, and gossip could be the only outlet. Keeping yourself busy helps you focus on things that interest you instead of other people’s lives. You can take up a hobby, join a volunteer organization, or travel more. Make your life so enriched that you only have time to focus on yourself and to support your loved ones to achieve their goals.
Change the subject.
If you get stuck listening to gossip, graciously change the subject when it’s your turn to talk. Say something like, “I’m sorry to hear that Sue’s losing her house. Speaking of houses, I just saw the cutest cottage by the lake yesterday!”
Put the gossiper on a guilt trip. This somewhat manipulative move should be used as a last resort. If the muckraker constantly brings up other people despite your efforts to change the subject, make her feel bad for gossiping by saying something like, “I haven’t heard anything about Sue’s divorce and foreclosure, but if it’s even true, I don’t think she would want people talking about it. She’s a great woman, and if she wanted us to know, she’d tell us herself.” Not only will this make the gossiper feel guilty, it’ll also discourage her to discuss other people with you again. Problem solved!