Gossip can be toxic for relationships. When we share negative information about others, we risk hurting our peers’ feelings, eroding trust, and destroying friendships. But, counterintuitively, research suggests that this social behavior may not be entirely negative.
Tantalizing talk is nothing new. In fact, the first written record of gossip—hearsay about an affair between a man and a married woman—was found etched in a clay tablet around 1500 BC. Nowadays, research shows that almost 70% of our daily conversations revolve around talking about other people.
While gossiping is discouraged in a congenial society, evidence is growing that it may promote some healthy behaviors. For example, a new study published in the medical journal Psychoneuroendocrinology examines how gossiping affects the hormone levels responsible for feelings of euphoria, love, and trust. This small study of female college students between the ages of 20 and 22 found that gossiping causes their bodies to release more of the hormone oxytocin (aka the “love drug”). This hormone is responsible for harmonious social behavior, as it promotes relationship bonding and feelings of trust and generosity.
When these women were told to gossip about a fellow student, their brains released more oxytocin than when they were told about another student who had injured herself and needed their emotional support. Based on these results, the study’s researchers concluded that there might be a hidden physiological upside to gossiping.
This study is not the first to suggest that there may be benefits to gossiping, however. For example, a 2012 study at the University of California, Berkeley suggested that tattling on others promoted social bonding. In this study, two social psychologists conducted a series of experiments in which participants observed another person behaving selfishly. When the subjects were allowed to gossip and warn the other participants about the dishonest person, they felt more positive. The researchers concluded that this was because sharing this information helped relieve stress.
These results prompted the psychologists at UC Berkeley to consider whether all gossip is not created equal. Unlike the salacious gossip spread by celebrity tabloids, the researchers identified a type of gossip called “prosocial gossip.” This form of communication alerts others about dishonest and potentially dangerous people, such as a backstabbing work colleague or an untrustworthy friend.
“We shouldn’t feel guilty for gossiping if it helps prevent others from being taken advantage of,” said Matthew Feinberg, a social psychologist and lead author of the UC Berkeley study. Feinberg and his colleagues concluded that under certain circumstances, gossip might help reduce our stress levels, protect others from potential harm, and even promote altruistic behavior.
Another study, this one conducted at Staffordshire University, introduces the concept of “positive” gossip, such as sharing news about someone’s accomplishments. Researchers found that partaking in positive gossip can temporarily boost our self-esteem and may help us feel more emotionally supported by others.
But while there may be an upside to gossiping, let’s not forget the many potential downsides of participating in this behavior.
For example, a recent study published in the medical journal Pediatrics reveals that more teenage girls are suffering from depression than they have at any other point in history—and gossip being shared about them on social media is partly to blame. Researchers also note that parents who criticize others are more likely to raise aggressive teenagers who instigate fights with their peers and gossip about them.
So while gossiping may temporarily elicit a few feel-good hormones and help us feel better about ourselves, there are still real ramifications for the person being gossiped about. Before we leave an irreversible social scar, we should consider if by making ourselves feel better, we may be making someone else feel worse.