Cover Story

Psychologist Sarah Wert, PhD, discovered a new research program during a sermon. Wert, a research associate at Yale University, was listening to a rabbi give a talk about the moral dangers of gossip when she realized that she'd never really considered gossip's moral implications before.

"As a social psychologist, I've always been interested in morality and moral decisions," Wert says. "And gossip is something that people make a moral decision about all the time: many times a day, every day."

Now, Wert investigates what those everyday moral decisions add up to. She studies how factors such as people's moods and social standing influence the way they gossip, and the way that gossip can draw people together or pull them apart. She's one of many psychologists-mainly social psychologists-who have in the past decade or so begun to take a closer look at this most ubiquitous of human pastimes.

They're finding that, contrary to popular opinion, gossip isn't always bad. Although it can be used to harm others (see "Whispers as weapons"), gossip is also the glue that binds social groups together (see "Bonding over others' business") and a valuable tool that helps people learn the rules of their social worlds (see "Learned it through the grapevine"). In fact, some psychologists suspect that, despite gossip's reputation for triviality, our need to chatter about one another in fact may be the evolutionary spur that pushed humanity to develop language (see "Bonding over others' business").

As many definitions as researchers

In order to study gossip, of course, psychologists first need to define it-for themselves and for the participants in their studies.

"You have to get over the quotidian definition of gossip, which is almost all negative," says Eric Foster, PhD, a psychologist and researcher at Temple University's Institute for Survey Research who recently completed a dissertation on gossip and social networks. "Usually when gossip comes up, people's knee-jerk reaction is to say 'I never gossip,' although of course everyone does."

In a review of gossip research methods published in a special gossip issue of the Review of General Psychology (Vol. 8, No. 2, pages 78-99), Foster writes that the most common definition of gossip is any conversation between two or more people about another person who is not there.

Wert agrees that this is as standard a definition of gossip as one can find in social psychology; but, she cautions, researchers use many variations.

For example, some narrow it further. University of Surrey psychology professor Nicholas Emler, PhD, suggests that gossip must include information about someone whom both gossipers know personally-so talk about celebrities is a sort of pseudogossip.

And Wert's research suggests that gossip must include an opinion or evaluative dimension. So simply posing a question such as, "Did you hear that Jack and Jill are dating?" is only gossip if the tone or something else in the conversation suggests the speaker's opinion of Jack and Jill's romance, she says.

Other psychologists, meanwhile, take a much broader view. For example, gossip researcher Robin Dunbar, PhD, of the University of Liverpool, says that he considers any kind of talk about social or personal topics-really, any social chatter-to be gossip.

One thing that researchers agree on is that it's important to differentiate gossip from rumor. The two get mixed up in common parlance, according to Foster, but they are different phenomena. Gossip is talk about other people, usually assumed to be based on facts. Rumor, meanwhile, can be about either events or people, and is much more speculative.

Loose lips in the lab

Gossip, whatever its definition, is everywhere.

"It's like breathing: It's so much a part of our day that we don't even realize we're doing it," Foster says. In fact, in a study published in 1997 in the journal Human Nature (Vol. 8, No. 3, pages 231-246), Dunbar found that as much as 65 percent of people's conversations could be defined as gossip.

But for something that occurs so frequently, gossip can be surprisingly tricky to study. That's because it's an inherently private activity that's difficult to reproduce in a lab, says Emler: "Gossip is being indiscreet about things you know about others, so you're generally careful about what you say in a public setting."

Psychologists have come up with many research methods to get around these difficulties. Dunbar, for example, found his 65 percent statistic simply by eavesdropping on and carefully coding dozens of conversations in public places, such as trains, bars and a university cafeteria. Other psychologists, like Emler, have instead asked people to keep detailed diaries of their conversational topics, and still others have developed surveys and questionnaires that ask people to recall how often and in what ways they gossip.

Each of these methods has plusses and minuses. Eavesdropping, for example, is unobtrusive and has good ecological validity, but it's impossible to gather context and background information about the speakers-and what people say in public may differ from what they say in their homes or other private spaces. Questionnaires are limited by what people remember; diaries are limited by the fact that it's difficult for people to record their conversations in detail for any length of time.

A few researchers, meanwhile, have tried to bring gossip into the lab rather than search it out elsewhere. Wert, for example, brings pairs of friends into her lab and asks them to gossip with each other-or, more specifically, to talk about someone they know. She videotapes and codes their discussions.

In general, researchers say, all of these methods are part of a new surge of interest in gossip. Until recently, many psychologists dismissed gossip as "froth on the cup of coffee," says Dunbar, rather than a topic for serious study. They believed that language evolved to communicate facts and information, and gossip was an unimportant side effect. In fact, Foster points out in his review article, a PsycINFO search of psychology journals from 1970 until 2000 turns up only about 100 articles with the keyword "gossip," an incredibly small number given how much of our time gossip takes up, he says.

But, he adds, in the past few years psychologists have begun to realize that gossip is more than just idle chatter: It is the key to navigating our social worlds.

"I really think interest in this is burgeoning," Foster says.