How Gossip Can Actually Make You A Better Person

Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
Reading the latest celebrity gossip is a near-universal guilty pleasure. And, although spreading those whispers — either about Kim K. or Kim from accounting — isn't the nicest thing to do, new research suggests gossip can have some unexpected positive consequences for the listener.
In the study, to be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, researchers wanted to see what kind of self-affirming reflection we might get out of gossiping.
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In their first experiment, they asked 183 undergraduates to take a survey about a time when they worked on a group project in school. Half of the participants were also asked to describe a time when a group member told them something positive about a third group member. The other half had to describe the same situation but with negative gossip. Then, participants took a self-evaluation survey about how this juicy bit of information made them feel and think about themselves.
Results showed that those who got positive gossip also got a better sense of self-improvement value (e.g., they felt more like they could learn from the third group member). And, those who recalled a negative gossip experience got more of a self-promotional value, leading them to feel they were doing better than the third person on that assignment.
In their second experiment, the researchers asked 122 participants to pretend they were sales agents in a work environment that was either performance-focused (fostering competition between agents) or mastery-focused (participants just needed to compete with themselves). To get into the appropriate mindset, participants each had to write a paragraph about the importance of their set goals as the sale agent character. Next, they were asked to imagine that a coworker told them some negative or positive gossip about a third coworker's job performance. Then, they took the same self-evaluation measure that was used in the first experiment.
Results here were similar to the first study: Those who heard positive gossip thought more about self-improvement, while those who got negative gossip went straight for the self-promotional angle. But, here, negative gossip also spurred participants to think more about self-protection as well (e.g., "I have to protect my image within this group"). So, this supported the study authors' hypothesis that hearing gossip causes us to reflect on ourselves. And, it can either push us to be better at what we're working on — or it can make us feel confident that we're doing a pretty excellent job already. So, while you probably don't want to devote your entire lunch hour to dishing on your co-worker's covert fling, gossip might not be all bad.
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