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.

Call it

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.’

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