Psychology researchers from the universities of Glasgow, Manchester, and the West of Scotland say that a key function of gossip may be to maintain our reputation systems by receiving updates on the recent behaviour of our acquaintances.
Dr. Bo Yao, psychology researcher from the University of Manchester and lead author of the paper, said: “Intuitively, it’s not surprising that we are more likely to gossip about familiar people and interesting stories. However, we are much more likely to gossip when a story unites a familiar person with an interesting scenario.”
Authors of the study devised an experiment to further understand the psychological triggers of gossip.
Participants were asked to read a series of fictitious stories and indicate how likely they would be to share these stories with friends. Participants then had to provide feedback on each story’s predictability and whether their opinion of the main character had changed.
The stories involved a list of hundred widely-known UK and US celebrities, such as David and Victoria Beckham, alongside a list of non-celebrities. Both groups of characters were then placed in fictitious scenarios that were considered either interesting, such as getting pregnant or being caught with drugs, or mundane, such as having coffee or going shopping.
The researchers found that high levels of gossip were linked to predictability and the target’s reputation. For example, when a story was considered less predictable and resulted in a greater change of opinion about the target, participants were more likely to pass on that information as gossip.
Dr Sara Sereno, Cognitive Neuroscience researcher at the University of Glasgow and senior author of the study explained: “To us, a good piece of gossip should be judged as information that’s worthy of being passed on to those who are well-placed to appreciate its content. In other words, gossip is interesting stuff about someone we care about.”
“Gossip plays a big role in how we manage our social reputations,” Dr Sereno explained. “We hope our study provides a first step in understanding the specific factors that influence our gossiping behaviour.”
The study, entitled “Familiarity with Interest Breeds Gossip: Contributions of Emotion, Expectation, and Reputation”, was published in the online journal PLoS ONE in August this year.