“The tongue is like a sharp knife, kills without drawing blood.” (Buddha)
We all know that gossip is undesirable, unproductive, spreads negativity and that it is not even a whit useful whatsoever. Still we fall for it almost compulsively, may be, as in many cases, because we have nothing else to do. Gossiping and backbiting is such a common evil that even though the whole world is destroyed and luckily three persons survive, the other two will move aside and backbite about the third. People have discovered a new way of enjoyment by joking and making fun of others, which is another form of backbiting. Gossiping is like eating cake for breakfast – temporarily thrilling, totally delicious, but leaves one feeling kind of icky.
“I don’t want to gossip, but…” is a very common refrain. The reason? One knows that what he is doing or going to do is not good, all the same talking about someone who isn’t there is irresistible and one probably is keen on passing judgment. When it is especially malicious, gossip humiliates and demeans the subject. “Emotional pain and physical pain are processed in the same part of the brain,” says Erika Holiday, Psy.D., a psychologist in Los Angeles and a coauthor of Mean Girls, Meaner Women “Gossip can hurt as much as being punched in the gut.”
Whenever we gossip about somebody else, there’s always that possibility that what we say about somebody will get back to that person firsthand. And that is never a good experience, whether it be for me, or for the person who was being gossiped about. Many times, the gossip may be a stretch of the truth, if not an all out lie. And I guarantee that the person who was gossiped about will be insulted when it’s determined that it’s a false piece of information that had been passed on. That does not make the person who was gossiping look any better in the eyes of the person who was in the middle.
Some researchers argue that gossip helped our ancestors survive. Evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar first pioneered this idea, comparing gossip to the grooming primates engage in as a means of bonding. Instead of picking fleas and dirt off one another to bond, Ludden explains, we now talk, which is “where gossip comes in, because chit-chat is mostly talking about other people and conveying social information.”
Gossiping, Dunbar argues, gives humans the ability to spread valuable information to very large social networks. “Were we not able to engage in discussions of these [social and personal] issues, we would not be able to sustain the kinds of societies that we do,” she explained in a 2003 paper published in the Review of General Psychology. “Gossip in this broad sense plays a number of different roles in the maintenance of socially functional groups through time.”
“We are much more social [than our evolutionary forbearers],” says Ludden, “so it can be very helpful to get information about people [from others] when this network is too big to observe by ourselves.”
Some scholars view gossip as evidence of cultural learning, offering teachable moments and providing people examples of what’s socially acceptable – and what’s not. For example, if there’s someone who cheats a lot in a community or social circle and people start to talk about that person in a negative way, says Robbins, the collective criticism should warn others of the consequences of cheating. And as word near-inevitably trickles back to the source of the said gossip, it can “serve to keep people in check, morally speaking,” adds Robbins.
In a published study in Social Neuroscience, in 2015, scientists looked at brain imaging of men and women as they heard positive and negative gossip about themselves, their best friends and celebrities. People hearing gossip – good and bad – about themselves, as well as negative gossip in general, showed more activity in the prefrontal cortex of their brains, which is key to our ability to navigate complex social behaviors. This activity indicated the subjects responded to the gossip and its insight. The authors say this is related to our desire to be seen positively by others and fit in socially, regardless of whether this reflects what we’re actually feeling.
The study also found that the caudate nucleus, a reward center in the brain, was activated in response to negative gossip about celebrities; subjects seemed to be amused or entertained by salacious celebrity scandals. The researchers also polled how the subjects felt, in addition to studying what their brain images revealed. Not surprisingly, they were happier to hear positive gossip about themselves and were more irked by hearing negative gossip about themselves as against to hearing gossip about others.
A physiological distinction has been drawn between active and passive participation in gossip. Matthew Feinberg, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, and his colleagues explored this in a study published in 2012, in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. When subjects heard about another person’s anti-social behavior or an injustice, their heart rates increased. When they were able to actively gossip about the person, or the situation, on the other hand, it soothed them and brought their heart rates down. The act of gossiping, Feinberg explains, “helps calm the body.”
In addition, Feinberg’s research has shown that gossip can promote cooperation by spreading important information. “When people say ‘your reputation precedes you,’ it’s because they have heard gossip about that person,” he says, which “can be extremely useful.” That said, disseminating or not correcting gossip you know to be untrue doesn’t have any pro-social benefit.
In another of Feinberg’s studies, a group of participants identified members who behaved selfishly via gossip, and promptly kicked them out. In the study, participants were divided into subgroups, and then each person was given a number of points representing small sums of money. Each participant could contribute these points to their group – in which case, the points would be doubled and redistributed equally – or keep them for themselves. Armed with the knowledge of their peers’ decisions, participants then played the game over again in different groupings. Crucially, they could inform their new groups how much someone had contributed in earlier exercises, and could vote to exclude someone who had behaved selfishly from a round entirely.
Having eliminated those bad apples, remaining participants were then able to work more harmoniously and inflate their collective pot. Individuals who had given less than half their points initially increased their contributions by the end of the latter rounds, while those who had been excluded gave significantly more after they were allowed back into the game, conforming to the less selfish behavior.
Gossiping also says something about the relationships people have with each other. “In order to gossip, you need to feel close to people,” says Stacy Torres, assistant professor of sociology at the University of California, San Francisco, who has studied gossip in older adults. “There’s an intimacy” to sharing experiences and feeling like you’re on the same page about others, she points out. Torres’ research has found that gossip can stave off loneliness, while other studies have found it can facilitate bonding and closeness and serve as a form of entertainment. So, some good can come of gossiping – with the right intentions, of course.
Regardless of these research findings, which keep evolving with times, let us not waste our time and energy on gossiping. In fact, said Jonathan Estrin, “The way we spend our time defines who we are…!” Time could be better spent elsewhere like pursuing hobbies, engaging in social work, giving back to the society, in short, doing something better with the spare time. Do what you believe in and believe in what you do. All else is a wastage of energy and time.(Nisargadutta) After all, there are only a certain number of minutes in a day and there are only a certain number of minutes in a week; so let us make sure that every minute we are spending doing something, it’s something that is truly worth that time. With that, go forth, and make it a positive and productive day.
Bhushan Lal Razdan, formerly of the Indian Revenue Service, retired as Director General of Income Tax (Investigation), Chandigarh.