How Does the Brain Respond to Gossip?by Viatcheslav Wlassoff, PhD | April 25, 2015
Newspapers use up reams of paper to report it. The air around your office cubicle, or in the cafeteria, hangs heavy with it. When best friends meet, they discuss it in hushed whispers. Gossip is an integral part of our communication. And if evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar is to be believed, gossip makes up the lion’s share—a whopping two-thirds—of our conversations. We talk about other topics like music, sports, politics, and the weather in the remaining time. That is a lot of time we spend discussing other people’s affairs, some of which are not in good light.
So why do perfectly sensible, reasonably intelligent, and genuinely compassionate people engage in gossiping? What do they gain from it? Do only women do it? And do people who love gossiping get a malicious pleasure out of listening to stories of failed romances and scandals? Neuroscientists have probed into the brains of people when they gossip to unearth the science behind it.
How Does Gossip Affect Us?
Gossip affects us; it either tickles us or makes us shudder. But did you know that different kinds of gossip affect us in different ways?
According to a study published this year and carried out on a random sampling of men and women, the subjects were generally more pleased to hear positive gossip than negative news. However, they were more distressed by negative gossip about themselves than about other people like their friends, acquaintances, and celebrities. Not many surprises there.
These findings were arrived at after the subjects were made to fill out a questionnaire. The scientists also carried out fMRI scans of the subjects’ brains as they listened to positive and negative gossip about themselves, their best friends, and celebrities.
According to the findings from these scan reports, listening to gossip about themselves heightened activity in the superior medial prefrontal cortex of the subjects’ brains. This region also responded to negative gossip about others. The subjects recorded increased activity in the orbital prefrontal cortex region of their brains in response to positive gossip about themselves.
The prefrontal cortex is one of the brain regions involved in social cognition and executive control. Social cognition is the ability to regulate our thoughts, behavior, and actions based on the real, imaginary, or assumed presence of other people. In other words, social cognition is a trait that makes us want to conform to the accepted norms and rules of society. Executive control is the ability to channelize our thought patterns, behavior, and actions based on internal goals. The neurotransmitter dopamine regulates the functionality of this region and activates the reward system.
The activation of prefrontal cortex region of the brain in response to positive gossip about oneself indicates that most human beings want to be seen as conforming to social standards of morality and success. They see more rewards in being “seen” in a positive light by the world at large than staying true to their internal moral compass.
On the other hand, we think that we are repulsed by negative gossip about others. But the fMRI images obtained during the above study bust this myth. The activation of the superior medial prefrontal cortex region in response to negative gossip about others indicates that although we are not elated by the falling-from-grace stories of other people, we are amused. This finding would seem morally unacceptable to many. After all, we don’t like to think of ourselves as fiends who gloat at others’ miseries and misfortunes.
But don’t be so hard on yourself. Gossiping is good for you!
Is Gossip Good or Bad?
Although moral purists might frown upon the practice, scientists say that gossip serves self-preservation purposes. According to them, there are also definite social benefits of gossiping.
Social scientists believe that gossip is an integral tool for observational learning. We exchange information about others when we gossip. Negative gossip makes you realize how society perceives acts of moral transgression, and you indirectly learn a lesson on how to live within a community and adhere to its rules. In this instance, negative gossip serves as a tool for indirect learning; you learn how to act correctly without having to bear the costs and consequences of a negative action.
Gossip acts as a self-improvement tool in another way. Positive gossip about ourselves gives us the motivation to carry on with our good behavior or sustain positive habits. It also provides us with hints about acceptable behavioral traits within the context of a particular society.
Some scientists point out to the benefit of prosocial gossip. They say exchanging negative information about the reputation of another person puts vulnerable people on alert and protects them from future anti-social or exploitative acts of the person who is the subject of the gossip. According to scientists, prosocial gossip promotes cooperation and bonding amongst people and creates a safety net.
At another level, the sharing of negative reputational information also acts as a check on the anti-social behavioral traits of people. According to scientists, when negative reputational information is shared with many people, the group as a whole usually chooses to ostracize the wrongdoer. Ostracism compels the person excluded from his group to resort to better behavior to win approval. Ostracism may also act as a deterrent to anti-social behavior by others.
Researchers also claim that sharing negative gossip promotes social bonds. They say that indulging in negative gossiping with another person usually triggers conversations that involve downward social comparisons. These conversations are powerful ego-boosters. What is more, by sharing negative information about another person, we unknowingly create distinct social identities—the gossiper brings the person he is gossiping with into his ambit and creates an in-group while the person being gossiped about is made out to be an outsider (the creation of an out-group).
It seems that gossiping is not entirely a wasteful pursuit of time and energy. Our brains get a kick from exchanging juicy tidbits of information about someone we know intimatel (our best friends) or can only observe from a distance (celebrities). Gossip about ourselves is like a mirror to our actions and behavior and lets us rectify ourselves, so we can become more responsible members of the society.
Baumeister, R., Zhang, L., & Vohs, K. (2004). Gossip as cultural learning. Review of General Psychology, 8 (2), 111-121 DOI: 10.1037/1089-26188.8.131.52
BOSSON, J., JOHNSON, A., NIEDERHOFFER, K., & SWANN, W. (2006). Interpersonal chemistry through negativity: Bonding by sharing negative attitudes about others Personal Relationships, 13 (2), 135-150 DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-6811.2006.00109.x
Dunbar, R. (2004). Gossip in evolutionary perspective. Review of General Psychology, 8 (2), 100-110 DOI: 10.1037/1089-26184.108.40.206
Feinberg, M., Willer, R., & Schultz, M. (2014). Gossip and Ostracism Promote Cooperation in Groups Psychological Science, 25 (3), 656-664 DOI: 10.1177/0956797613510184
Feinberg, M., Willer, R., Stellar, J., & Keltner, D. (2012). The virtues of gossip: Reputational information sharing as prosocial behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102 (5), 1015-1030 DOI: 10.1037/a0026650
Martinescu, E., Janssen, O., & Nijstad, B. (2014). Tell Me the Gossip: The Self-Evaluative Function of Receiving Gossip About Others Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 40 (12), 1668-1680 DOI: 10.1177/0146167214554916
Peng X, Li Y, Wang P, Mo L, & Chen Q (2015). The ugly truth: negative gossip about celebrities and positive gossip about self entertain people in different ways. Social neuroscience, 10 (3), 320-36 PMID: 25580932
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