HOT GOSSIP! Why it’s good for you
Loose lips sink ships. That’s what Taylor Swift says (at least, she stole that catchy little line off a World War II propaganda poster). Gossip has got a bad rap over the years, but actually, dishing the dirt has some well-documented benefits – if you do
‘Gossip allows us to communicate a behavioural code to others. Gossip allows us to set a standard of conduct.’
ossip is the devil’s radio,’ said George Harrison. Clearly not a fan. Oscar Wilde felt completely differently: ‘There is only one thing worse than being talked about,’ he wrote, ‘and that is not being talked about.’
Gossip may seem like a frivolous topic, but evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar believes it played a huge role in the way our society was built. He believes gossip may be the primary reason language developed in the first place. Not only that – having a good goss has some well-documented benefits.
schadenfreude if you want, but research has shown that hearing someone else’s bad news can help us cope with our own challenges. Whether it’s a story about a friend’s rocky marriage or problem child, it helps to know you’re not the only one struggling. According to some studies, cancer patients show improvement when they hear of others who are worse off. ‘People say to themselves, “Wow, it’s not as bad as it can get! That’s great news!” and it makes them feel better,’ says social psychologist Sarah Wert of Yale University.
When it comes to the workplace, gossiping is generally discouraged. But it shouldn’t be, argues an article in Psychology
Today. ‘Gossip is a hallmark of a healthy organisation; silence is a sign of disease.’ According to psychologist Francis McAndrew of Knox College, top managers don’t censor gossip – they use it to their advantage: to get a sense of what their employees are thinking and feeling, and to help them weed out bad apples. Industrial psychologists even go so far as to advise bosses to let their employees grumble about them. ‘Bashing the boss and talking trash about the coach unifies the team.’
Gossiping helps us form a bond with others. ‘Sharing “private” information can establish relationships between people so they continue to confide in each other,’ says Villanova University communication instructor Derek Arnold. ‘They’re more likely to work together on other activities.’
Gossip can also be a great conversation starter. Psychologist Charlotte De Backer found that having some celeb gossip up their sleeves helps young people in particular make connections. ‘Young people, especially, use celebrities in conversation to become friends with new people they encounter,’ she says. ‘It’s an easy-access tool to build a bond.’ She found that teens who don’t follow celeb gossip struggle to relate to their peers, and generally have a smaller group of friends.
Another reason we love to gossip: it feels good. ‘Gossip is like sex,’ says McAndrew. ‘It’s such fun that people can’t stop themselves from doing it.’ Sharing a scandalous story and getting a gasp in response triggers a dopamine spike in your brain, one that gets an extra boost if laughter is involved. Gossip is also a safeguard against people who don’t deserve our trust. You wouldn’t hire the contractor who ran off with your friend’s deposit and never finished renovating her kitchen, and you sure as hell wouldn’t (or shouldn’t!) go on a date with the guy your cousin met on Tinder who keeps a box of human hair under his bed. Gossip will save you from those nasty little surprises.
Still determined not to get drawn into a skinner sesh? You might just be alienating yourself. ‘You have to be a player,’ says McAndrew. ‘If you are not involved in the gossip network, then by definition you are an outsider.’
According to ‘professional gossip’ Lainey Lui, something as trivial as celeb gossip serves a much more significant purpose than you’d think. ‘My job as a professional gossip is to study the celebrity ecosystem the
‘Gossip is a hallmark of a healthy organisation; silence is a sign of disease.’
way a scientist might study the marine ecosystem,’ she says in a TEDx Talk entitled The Sociology of Gossip. ‘I study the celebrity ecosystem to understand social culture, social behaviour, humanity, to understand ourselves. That is the function of gossip. Gossip, then, is good. Gossip is knowledge. Gossip is immortal. Gossip is historical.’
Gossip, says Lainey, can be traced back to the ancient Egyptians. Researchers at California’s Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum have uncovered some titbits among their hieroglyphic content. ‘One 5000-year-old text tells the story of a king who would check in on one of the army generals in the middle of the night, quite often – they weren’t discussing military strategy…’ Other hieroglyphics show Queen Hatshepsut fooling around with one of her advisers. ‘So you see, all those Egyptians, they love talking sh*t so much, they carved it in stone,’ jokes Lainey.
But this kind of storytelling tells us a lot about their societal rules – just like celeb gossip reveals a lot about us as a society.
‘Here’s a really interesting thing about gossip,’ says Lainey. ‘You can’t consume gossip without filtering it through the prism of your own experience. What inevitably comes out the other side is a pretty definitive declaration about what we believe, what we expect, what we reject and how we process. Gossip allows us to communicate a behavioural code to others. Gossip allows us to set a standard of conduct.’
Some of Lainey’s examples are a bit dated (her talk is from 2015), but I bet you remember all these topics. Remember when Kristen Stewart cheated on Robert Pattinson, and she was crucified in the press? The headline on the cover of the New York Daily News was ‘Trampire’. But when Ashton Kutcher was caught cheating on Demi Moore, he landed a role on
Two and a Half Men, making him the highest paid actor on TV at the time. And singer Chris Brown: just three years after he assaulted Rihanna, he won a Grammy – all was forgiven.
Think about how motherhood is revered in Hollywood – magazines pay millions for those first baby pics. And think about the gay rumours that have been circulating around John Travolta for years. ‘Is [that] really about John Travolta?’ asks Lainey, ‘or is it about us and our definition of masculinity as it relates to sexual orientation?’ ‘Gossip is anthropology,’ she says. ‘Celebrity gossip is the conversation that exposes who we are, and a reflection of modern human behaviour in culture. It’s a reflection of current standards of morality. And in observing the changing nature of morality, gossip is the play-by-play of our social evolution.’