Science: People Gossip Because Everyone Is Selfish

Science & Tech / Discoveries

Science: People Gossip Because Everyone Is Selfish

By: Chris O'Shea

Everyone loves to gossip — even the people who say they hate to gossip. In fact, those people are probably doing the most talking. Despite the pervasiveness of gossip, it's not easy to understand why we love it so much. Luckily for us, a group of scientists might have found the answer: It's because talking about others is a good way to help yourself.

A team of experts led by Elena Martinescu of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, conducted two experiments to find that as humans we have an incredible ability to make things about ourselves. The first test involved 178 college students who had all participated in at least one class with a group of four or more students. The students were asked to report on a time when one student had told them something either positive or negative about another student.

The 178 participants were then asked to rate how much they agreed with a series of statements. "Some of these measured the self-improvement value of the gossip (“The information received made me think I can learn a lot from X”); others measured its self-promotion value (“The information I received made me feel that I am doing well compared to X”)," reports Tom Jacobs over at Pacific Standard. "Still others measured whether the gossip raised personal concerns (“The information I received made me feel that I must protect my image in the group”)."

The second experiment was a bit less complicated. The team asked 122 students to play the role of a sales agent. The participants were then given information about another sales agent. Some of the information was positive, some of it negative. They were then asked to describe the emotions they felt when given the information.

In each experiment, people said that positive and negative gossip was beneficial to them. "Positive gossip has self-improvement value," the team wrote in the journal Personality and Social Psychology. "Competence-related positive gossip about others contains lessons about how to improve one's own competence." Meanwhile, negative gossip helped people because it allowed them to hear how others are doing. In other words, when you hear bad things about a colleague, it gives you a window into your own status. If you're not doing the bad thing, you're better than Sally from accounting.

These two experiments show that we no longer need to feel bad about gossiping, not only because we all do it, but because it's all about us anyway. Humans are damn good at being as selfish as possible. Especially John in the DC office. You hear about what he did? Oh man….

[Image via Flickr - Ripton Scott]

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