Anyone living in contemporary society has either been the subject of gossip, spread some gossip or listened to gossip. Gossip is a part of life, even if it does have a bad reputation.
The results of a new study conducted by UC Berkeley sociologists and psychologists, however, demonstrates that gossip may not deserve so much bad press.
Research suggests gossip plays an integral role in maintaining social order by creating an informal web of checks and balances within communities that influences people’s behavior in predominately positive ways. Those communities can be as small as an office or as big as a Facebook roster of friends and gossip can affect behavior just as dramatically in one as in the other.
More simply, people have an understanding of the fragility of reputations and know that gossip can make or break a person within a certain community. Past studies have examined the manipulative power of gossip within societies, which can be used to achieve positive or negative effect.
The UC Berkeley study, in contrast, focuses on what it calls “prosocial” gossip, or gossip that manipulates behavior for the good of the order by discouraging bad acts and reducing anxiety and stress in those who gossip about it. According to the report, this type of gossip is different from rumors that are spread purely for the sake of entertainment or to harm someone.
That there is a positive correlation between “good” gossip and trust within communities has already been established in other sociological studies, though, and critics of the Berkeley study argue that focus on a specific type of gossip limits its meaning as it pertains to its broader effects on a particular group.
Even so, there is no doubt that people’s behavior is in part determined by what other people will say about that behavior. This is the nature of consequences: a concept most communities imprint on members once they become a part of it. That gossip acts as a mechanism to trigger these consequences and subsequently promote more fairness and reciprocity in society would suggest gossip is indeed a very positive thing.