Professor Frank McAndrew’s recent research on gossip, and the publicity surrounding it, has sparked a hot debate among readers of the New York Times’ Science Times columnist John Tierney.
Gossips and their listeners have an agenda, as you can gather from the title of a recent paper in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology: “Who Do We Tell and Whom Do We Tell On? Gossip as a Strategy for Status Enhancement.” It describes an experiment by social psychologists at Knox College in which students were told a variety of bits of negative gossip, like stories of someone who’s cheating on a partner, or has a drinking or gambling problem, or can’t perform sexually. The subjects also heard more pleasant gossip, like stories about someone winning an award or inheriting a fortune.
Then the students rated their intererest in the gossip, and their likelihood to pass it on, depending on whom was the gossip was about: male or female relatives, male or female professors, male or female acquaintances, male or female friends, and male or female strangers, as well as a same-sex enemy or rival and a romantic partner. Here’s the summary of the results by the researchers, Francis McAndrew, Emily Bell and Contitta Maria Garcia:
Damaging, negative news about rivals and positive news about friends and lovers was especially prized and likely to be passed on. Aside from romantic partners, males and females were more interested in information about same-sex others than about opposite-sex others. Overall, men were most likely to confide in their romantic partners, but females were equally likely to share gossip with their lovers and their same-sex friends.