How Gossip Saves Society

Everybody loves to talk about other people. It's human nature. But our society seems to stigmatize gossip, branding it as common, rude and just a little bit shameful. Turns out, though, it's not all bad.

According to Robb Willer, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley there are a lot of ways in which gossip has useful social functions.

In an interview with the Guardian, Willer explained a number of studies he's undertaken to get to the bottom of that idea. It turns out that when people have the opportunity to pass a warning on about someone being untrustworthy — and that's gossip if ever there was any — it reduces their frustration and heart rate.

Willer calls this prosocial gossip. "It is a subset of gossip that involves warning other people about untrustworthy others," he explains to the Guardian. "It is very different from malicious gossip, which might be driven by a desire to tarnish another's reputation or advance oneself."

In fact, when it comes to the trustworthiness of people, Willer's research also suggests that people on the receiving end of the gossip are indifferent to the information — it's the people that have it that really care about spreading the word. A result of that is that people tend to try and avoid putting themselves in situations where they will be gossiped about in a future as being untrustworthy, as they know it will spread. Essentially, Willer is suggesting that gossip maintains social order.

That's not hard to get your head round. Most of us probbaly shy away from doing or saying some things not because they're morally suspect, but because we're worried about what people might say about us once the deed is done.

The message? Don't hate yourself for gossiping. However, "it's very important that we discriminate between different kinds of gossip and the people who do it," explained Willer. "The kind where you warn people about untrustworthy others is valid, so we shouldn't feel bad about that."

I might also add: be careful about gossiping online. Twitter makes it easy to spread rumors, sure, even ones that maintain social order. But it also makes it easy to be on the receiving end of them too. You have been warned. [The Guardian; Image: ercwttmn]