May 19, 2006 -- Gossip is getting a juicy new buzz in an unlikely source: an academic journal.
Forget the tabloids. Enquiring minds will find the latest scoop on gossip in the journal Personal Relationships.
The journal’s June edition includes a study on gossip and friendship. The main finding: Mildly negative gossip may help cement new friendships.
The researchers included Jennifer Bosson, PhD, who worked on the study while on staff at the University of Oklahoma’s psychology department. Bosson’s team isn’t recommending negative gossip. Friendships can also form on a more positive foundation.
“Although shared positive attitudes are indeed important in friendship, there seems to be something especially delicious about the process of sharing our grievances about other people,” write Bosson and colleagues.
The Goods on Gossip
Bosson and colleagues defined gossip as “an exchange of personal information about absent third parties that can be either evaluatively positive or negative.”
That is, gossip can be nasty or nice, but it’s always about someone who isn’t around.
The researchers studied gossip and relationships three times in university students.
In the first study, 30 students identified the person they were closest to who wasn’t their relative. For confidentiality’s sake, the students only had to give that person’s first initial.
Then the students were asked to recall the early days of those relationships, naming the likes and dislikes they learned they had in common with that person when the relationship was new. Those likes and dislikes could be people or objects.
Bonding Through Gossip
The first study’s results showed that in the early stages of those relationships, the students “recalled sharing a larger percentage of negative than positive attitudes” when talking about other people.
But the students weren’t aware of the negative bonding (or didn’t admit it). When asked by the researchers, they said they were more likely to share positive, not negative, attitudes in the relationship.
The second study included 88 students. It was a lot like the first study, but it covered three close, nonfamily relationships for each student, instead of just one close relationship. The students also rated the closeness of each of those relationships.
The second and first studies had similar results. That is, there was something about slightly negative gossip that appealed to new friends. Fodder for Gossip
The third study was different. This time, students heard a tape of fictional students “Melissa” and “Brad” chatting about their weekend plans and possibly going to a movie together.
The researchers asked participants to jot down things they liked and didn’t like about Brad. Then they paired up participants, hinting that the pairs were based on likes or dislikes about Brad.
Before the pairs met, the researchers asked participants to predict how well their pair would “click” and how close they expected to feel to their assigned partner.
Students expected to feel close to their partner if they thought they shared a mild dislike of Brad. Positive feelings about Brad only promoted closeness if those feelings were strongly held by both partners, the study shows.
Dishing Gossip’s Downside
Bosson’s study doesn’t promote nasty gossip in the name of friendship.
“We certainly do not deny that gossip behavior has its drawbacks or that bad-mouthing others can hurt feelings, create conflicts, and ‘stir up a cauldron of trouble,’” the researchers write.
“Indeed, some researchers are beginning to conceptualize gossip as a form of indirect aggression that can have harmful consequences for both gossips and gossipees alike,” they continue. "Gossipees" are the subjects of gossip.
“Still, if there is a positive side of gossip, we believe it is that shared, mild, negative attitudes toward others can create and/or amplify interpersonal intimacy,” write Bosson and colleagues.