According to Sheldon Fort, 15, hardly a day goes by where he doesn't hear one of his classmates talk behind the back of another. In one recent incident, Fort's friend told him that a girl, who was new to the school and beginning to rise in popularity, had gotten pregnant. The rumor was false, but those who spread it managed to hurt the girl's feelings and social standing anyway, Fort recalls.
"Probably they were intimidated about her-a new girl getting so much attention," says Fort. "They were mudslinging, to make her seem less appealing."
Incidents like the one Fort observed, when gossip and rumor are used for malicious purposes, are probably less common than their other functions, notes Martha Putallaz, PhD, a psychology professor at Duke University who studies gossip among children. As-yet-unpublished data collected by Putallaz and graduate student Kristina McDonald suggests that when two children who are close friends gossip, they talk with the intent of hurting a peer only about 7 percent of the time.
"Gossip is also a way kids vent and establish solidarity," Putallaz notes.
But when it's used to hurt others, the effects can be devastating to the target's social standing and self-esteem, says Marion Underwood, PhD, author of the book "Social Aggression Among Girls" (Guilford Press, 2003).
"It looks like social aggression is a behavior that really does hurt children," says Underwood, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Dallas. "Loneliness, anxiety and depression are higher both for children who do it at high levels, and for children who receive it at high levels."
However, research suggests that many healthy children-and perhaps some adults-dabble in malicious gossip, and that it can be an effective way to be aggressive without facing social sanctions.
"What is so interesting about gossip is that it really walks the line between what is acceptable and what is not," says Underwood. "It is completely unacceptable for me to punch my colleague, but if I tell people he drinks too much, I am less likely to be called on it."
In addition to serving as a proxy for punching, malicious gossip can improve one's social standing at the expense of others' status, according to research by Antonius Cillessen, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Connecticut. Cillessen followed 905 children from the ages of 10 to 14, asking them each year to rank each other in terms of likability, popularity and social aggression. The children who others rated as socially aggressive-those who, for example, spread gossip about peers or intentionally excluded others from games-became more popular, according to a study published in a 2004 issue of Child Development (Vol. 75, No. 1, pages 147-163).
Gossip may enhance children's social standing because, by talking about someone who is not present, the gossipers form a social alliance, notes Underwood. If that talk is negative, the subject of the gossip is explicitly excluded from the new alliance, she notes. For example, a group of boys who talk about someone who recently acted like a "crybaby" establishes that theirs is a non-crybaby group.
Children who strategically exclude others in this manner may be able to gossip their way to the top of the social ladder, Cillessen says. Adults may also use such strategies from time-to-time too, though they are likely to do so in more subtle ways, and have multiple aims with a single instance of gossip, he says.
The collaborative nature of gossip may help explain its power to form exclusive, social groups, notes Donna Eder, PhD, a sociology professor at Indiana University Bloomington. In a study published in American Sociological Review (Vol. 54, No. 4, pages 494-508), Eder and her colleagues recorded the lunchtime conversations of 78 middle school students with their permission. They found that when a teenager offered a gossip gambit, others responded encouragingly about 80 percent of the time. They would confirm the information given-"Tina is a flirt"-or even elaborate on it, Eder says.
"What happens is, once one person makes that agreement, it is very unlikely for someone else-a third person or a fourth in the sequence of the talk-to disagree," says Eder.
However, if someone does disagree early in the conversation, others are more likely to dissent as well, she notes. This may be the case for both middle school students and adults, she notes.
"What I learned from this study is if you are in a group, and someone is being evaluated and you disagree, say it right away," says Eder. "I do this all the time in faculty meetings-I know it will be easier to disagree with one person than to disagree with the whole group."
While malicious gossip may be an effective way to enhance one's social standing-with little chance that others will disagree with you publicly-those who do may pay a hidden price, Cillessen has found.
In Cillessen's 2004 study, he found that popular fifth-graders tended to also be well liked by their peers, but by ninth grade, the two factors were negatively correlated. The increasing disparity may come from their need to gossip to stay atop the social heap, his findings suggest.
"What we see is...girls who are using relational aggression to be powerful in their peer group are seen as central and cool, but they are increasingly disliked by others," says Cillessen.
Speaking ill of others to become popular-and then having to do it more to stay popular-leads to an escalation of malicious gossip, suggests Cillessen's study. However, relational aggression as a method to socially climb seems to level at ninth grade, and it begins to decline around 10th, suggests as-yet-unpublished data by Cillessen.
That may be good news to Fort, who is currently in 10th grade.
"I think gossip brings about more gossip, and things can grow out of control and really hurt someone," Fort says. "If gossip were alcohol, my whole school would be wasted."