This morning, after I’ve taken my daughter to school, I thought I’d enjoy a few minutes of peace and quiet whilst I enjoy my first cup of coffee for the day when I suddenly heard a commotion outside. Somebody was running amok! Curiosity got the better of me so I peek outside my window to see what the ruckus is all about.
I didn’t see the man who’s just been cussing and hurling threats. However, I noticed that practically all my neighbors were standing outside, apparently enjoying the drama. Some of them were gathered in small groups, probably already analyzing the psychological makeup and assessing the family background of this emotionally disturbed bloke… I smiled at myself because I’m really not that different. I am, after all, also looking outside – except that I am probably more curious about my neighbors than about this man.
Only in the past decade or so have psychologists turned their attention toward the study of gossip, partially because it is difficult to define exactly what gossip is. Most researchers agree that the practice involves talk about people who are not present and that this talk is relaxed, informal and entertaining. Typically the topic of conversation also concerns information that we can make moral judgments about. Gossip appears to be pretty much the same wherever it takes place; gossip among co-workers is not qualitatively different from that among friends outside of work. Although everyone seems to detest a person who is known as a “gossip” and few people would use that label to describe themselves, it is an exceedingly unusual individual who can walk away from a juicy story about one of his or her acquaintances, and all of us have firsthand experience with the difficulty of keeping spectacular news about someone else a secret.
In his book Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language (Harvard University Press, 1996), Psychologist Robin Dunbar of the University of Liverpool in England suggested that gossip is a mechanism for bonding social groups together, analogous to the grooming that is found in primate groups. Sarah R. Wert, now at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and Peter Salovey of Yale University have proposed that gossip is one of the best tools that we have for comparing ourselves socially with others.