Gossip: the nature and curse of humans

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SCOTT AUSTIN | Scroll Illustration

As a girl that didn’t quite fit in, Erica Marley, a senior studying communication, was often forced to endure gossip and rumors about her during high school. Often the gossip was hurtful and malicious and built a social barrier between Marley and her peers.

“A girl once said to a bunch of students at school that I really liked this popular boy. It was really embarrassing because people would talk about it, and I would hear them talk about it, and they would treat me differently and look at me weird,” Marley said.

The gossip she experienced did more than hurt her relationship with her peers: it also altered the opinion she had of herself.

“It was damaging to my self-esteem because I blamed it on myself. I felt like maybe I was perceiving myself as a person I was not,” Marley said. “I felt like I had zero control over how I lived my life because of those rumors and because of being gossiped about so much.”

Her changed opinion of herself is not unique to her situation. A study from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences revealed that 44 percent of people changed their opinions on subjects that they had previous direct knowledge about when they were exposed to gossip or rumors.

“Thus, gossip has a strong manipulative potential that could be used by cheaters to change the reputation of others or even change their own. This finding suggests that humans are used to basing their decisions on gossip, rumors, or other spoken information,” according to the study.

This ability is not only limited to changing the opinions of people towards individuals, but can also change the opinions that individuals have of themselves, as exemplified in Marley’s situation.

Gossip, which is defined as talking about a person that not present, can be a dangerous weapon. While it’s generally viewed negatively, Americans are still addicted to it.

If the popularity of gossip magazines such as Us Weekly, People magazine and the National Enquirer weren’t evidence enough, a study printed in Psychology Today in 2001 revealed that everyone gossips, whether they realize it or not.

According to the same study, gossip is human nature, which means it is no respecter of age group, profession or religion. Even at BYU-Idaho gossip amongst peers is always present.

But there’s another side of gossip that’s not as commonly known.

Devon Finlayson, a senior majoring in international studies, had an experience where gossip served as a warning rather than an act of malice.

“This one time I had a really close friend and she was dating this guy that I heard some things about from a girl that dated him before,” Finlayson said. “I felt like I had to tell her these things. I felt anxiety until I told her these things.”

The anxiety he felt in this situation was the focus of a study at the University of California, Berkeley, where social psychologists conducted an experiment on the effects gossip has on the gossipers themselves.

Volunteers witnessed cheating during the experiment, which elevated their heart rate levels and made them feel anxious. The volunteers’ heart rates only dropped when they warned the person being cheated via a gossip note.

“A central reason for engaging in gossip was to help others out — more so than just to talk trash about the selfish individual,” said Matthew Feinberg, a UC Berkeley social psychologist, as reported by the UC Berkeley Newsroom.

The study concluded that gossip can be therapeutic by relieving anxiety.

Despite the good intentions that people may have in similar situations, gossipers must be cautious to avoid the spread of hurtful rumors.

Samuel Clay, psychology department chair, explained that humans think and make decisions in two different ways: controlled and automatic processing.

“Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman discusses this dual processing in his book, ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow,’ where he describes controlled processing as the deliberate, effortful, deep kinds of processing; which is contrasted with automatic processing which is more spontaneous, intuitive, and quick by nature,” Clay said

Clay explained that people often gossip automatically because of their desire to connect with other people. Clay recommended that students and teachers alike engage themselves in the controlled process to be able to avoid gossip.

Clay said he believes when people engage in the controlled process, social interactions become less about the gossip and more about building one another up.

“Instead of gossiping, we should engage in controlled processing to ensure that what we share about others, with others, will improve relationships with others across the board,” Clay said.

3 Responses

  1. J-mad says:

    This article is great! I was also gossiped about a lot and it is hurtful for all parties involved.

  2. scott says:

    The concept of automatic processing was interesting to me. I believe that it is very common for people to spread rumors, not primarily with intent to hurt someone, but simply to try and carry a conversation with someone. A lot of damage could be averted if we were to make just that small change in our social behavior.

  3. Tony Brady says:

    I really enjoyed this article. I don’t know why people have to gossip about other people. It is hurtful.

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