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At 4:30 in the morning, a carload of male college athletes tends not to be a chatty bunch, says former rowing team member and gossip researcher Kevin Kniffin, PhD. However, conversation among the team Kniffin observed and participated in reached a frenzied pitch one season, when a slacker joined the crew and challenged its social norms.

"The person decided to skip almost all the off-season practices," says Kniffin, an anthropology fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Because a single less-than-committed team member endangers an entire boat's success, the crew responded by talking negatively about the new teammate during the early-morning drive to practice. The chatter punished him by diminishing his status in the group, says Kniffin, but perhaps more importantly, it underscored the importance of team commitment for the rest of the group. The crew members began telling positive stories about the team's "model citizens," re-establishing the team norm of self-sacrifice. One such story recounted a time when a team captain kept jogging even after injuring himself.

Kniffin recorded and analyzed the team's gossip, and found that positive stories accounted for 20 percent of the car-ride talk that season, as compared with none in seasons with no slacker present. The study was published in a recent issue of Human Nature (Vol. 16, No. 3, pages 278-292), and adds to a growing body of evidence that gossip-rather than being simply a tool for aggression-may serve socially redeeming functions, says Roy Baumeister, PhD, a psychology professor at Florida State University. In particular, gossip enables people to learn social norms and navigate them as they change, he says.

"We have an appetite for stories, especially stories about people who have struggled with the rules and defied them, successfully or unsuccessfully," he says.

Morality tales

Gossiping about strangers and celebrities can serve more than just an entertainment purpose in our social lives, says Baumeister. For instance, when people talked about Bill Clinton's affair with a White House intern, they were using it as a test case to inform their own behaviors, posits gossip researcher Charles Walker, PhD, a psychology professor at St. Bonaventure University in New York. In doing so, they sought to learn whether social standards against extramarital affairs and office romances were changing, he says.

"When prominent people engage in behavior that is outside of the norm, the behavior becomes a candidate for changes in norms," says Walker. "People need to process that."

Positive gossip serves another important purpose: to spread information that could be useful to other members of a social group, Walker says. For instance, people in an office may talk about a time when a co-worker successfully approached an infamously ornery boss. Details about how the employee managed this feat could help others have similar success.

"There is the handbook that you get when you are hired as an employee, but there is another handbook that is never put into print that you really have to understand," he says. "That handbook is conveyed through gossip."

Lessons learned

College students, too, gain guidance through gossip, according to research by Baumeister published in the Review of General Psychology (Vol. 8, No. 2, pages 111-121.) In a study that had 172 students report gossip stories, the researchers found evidence that students use gossip to learn from others' mistakes. In fact, 64 percent of the participants said that they had learned something from the gossip they reported. Such lessons included broad maxims, like "Don't forget your true friends" and "Infidelity will eventually catch up to you," as well as specific ones, such as "Just because someone says they have pictures of someone doesn't mean they do."

Even the students who said they hadn't learned anything from a story often reported this was because the message conveyed by the gossip was something they already knew, Baumeister says.

Dovetailing with this finding is research by Walker showing that the goal of many gossip conversations is to pin down the details of these useful stories. For instance, if people are talking about how Tori hurt Sybil's feelings, they will try to find out exactly what Tori said and how she said it. Gathering information and context is a first step toward applying a story to one's own life, Walker notes.

For a study presented at the 2003 meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, Walker collected 91 instances of gossip by asking students to recount stories they recently heard. Trained assistants then coded the gossip for its content, assigning any number of nine purposes to each story. Most often, about 54 percent of the time, a goal of telling the story was "truth seeking"-determining what exactly happened. "Sense making" was the goal 32 percent of the time, and "norm ascertaining," came up 19 percent of the time (see chart).

"The intent is pretty similar to that of a social scientist," says Walker. "They want to get to the bottom of a story, to find out the truth of the matter."

Further reading

  • Baumeister, R.F., Zhang, L., & Vohs, K.D. (2004). Gossip as cultural learning. Review of General Psychology, 8, 111-121.

  • Kniffin, K.M., & Wilson, D.S. (2005). Utilities of gossip across organizational levels: Multilevel selection, free-riders, and teams. Human Nature, 16, 278-292.

  • Wilson, D.S., Wilczynski, C., Wells, A., & Weiser, L. (2000). Gossip and other aspects of language as group-level adaptations. In C. Heves & L. Huber (Eds.), The evolution of cognition (pp. 347-365). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.