Whether they like to admit it or not, most people are interested in gossip about other people’s achievements and failures. And while gossip is often seen as negative, a new study has found that listening to gossip may help us adapt to a social environment, help us improve, or reveal potential threats.
Researchers at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands conducted two studies to examine the effects of positive and negative gossip on the person hearing the gossip.
The first study asked participants to recall an incident where they received either positive or negative gossip about another individual. The participants were then asked questions to measure the self-improvement, self-promotion, and self-protection value of the gossip.
The researchers found that individuals who heard positive gossip had increased self-improvement value, while negative gossip increased self-promotion value. Negative gossip also increased self-protection concerns, according to the study’s findings.
“For example, hearing positive stories about others may be informative, because they suggest ways to improve oneself,” lead researcher Elena Martinescu said.
“Hearing negative gossip may be flattering, because it suggests that others — the gossip target — may function less well than we do. However, negative gossip may also be threatening to the self, because it suggests a malign social environment in which one may easily fall victim to negative treatments.”
Participants in the second study were assigned the role of a sales agent and asked to imagine they had written a job description that was presented to them. Participants received either negative or positive gossip about another’s job performance.
The scenario included an achievement goal manipulation with two conditions — a performance goal condition and a mastery goal condition.
People who primarily have a performance goal strive to demonstrate superior competence by outperforming other people. People who have a mastery goal strive to develop competence by learning new knowledge, abilities, and skills, the researchers explain.
Consistent with the first study, in the second study positive gossip had more self-improvement value, while negative gossip had self-promotion value and raised self-protection concerns.
Negative gossip also elicited pride due to its self-promotion value, since it provides individuals with social comparison information that justifies self-promotional judgments, according to the researchers.
Negative gossip also elicits fear and anxiety due to increased self-protection concerns, since individuals may worry that their reputation could be at risk if they become targets of negative gossip in the future, the researchers added.
The second study also found that individuals with a mastery goal are more likely to learn from positive gossip than individuals with a performance goal.
Additionally, those with a performance goal experience more concern for self-protection in response to positive gossip. Individuals who pursue performance goals feel threatened by positive gossip because rivals’ success translates to their own failure, the researchers explained.
The researchers expected that individuals would be more alert after receiving positive rather than negative gossip because they might find positive gossip provides a source of information they can learn from.
But they were surprised to find that alertness was high for both positive and negative gossip. This may be because both types of gossip are highly relevant for the receiver, the researchers theorized.
Gender differences between men and women were also observed.
“Women who receive negative gossip experience higher self-protection concerns, possibly because they believe they might experience a similar fate as the person being the target of the gossip, while men who receive positive gossip experience higher fear, perhaps because upward social comparisons with competitors are threatening,” Martinescu said.
“Gossip provides individuals with indirect social comparison information, which is valued highly because it provides an essential resource for self-evaluation,” Martinescu said.
Instead of eliminating gossip, the researchers suggest that individuals should “accept gossip as a natural part of our lives and receive it with a critical attitude regarding the consequences it may have on ourselves and on others.”
The study was published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.