Gossip might be the social glue that binds us, but prolific proponents of tittle-tattle should beware – gossipers are perceived not just as unlikeable but also as lacking social influence.
Sally Farley made her finding after asking 128 participants (mostly female students) to think of someone they knew, who either did or didn’t gossip a lot, and to rate that person for likeability and social influence, plus there were 21 other distracter items. To further conceal the true aims of the study, the actual word “gossip” was never used. Instead, participants were told the research was about “informal communication” and the specific instruction was to think of someone who “spent a lot of time (or little time) talking about other people when they were not around”. Among those participants asked to imagine a gossiper, a further detail was to imagine someone who either said negative things or positive things about people in their absence.
Prolific gossipers were liked less than non-gossipers, and negative gossipers were liked least of all. On a 13-item liking scale, with each item scored between 1 and 9, the negative gossipers averaged 37 points, the non-gossipers averaged 47. Moreover, prolific gossipers were perceived as less socially powerful than non-gossipers, especially if they were negative gossipers.
These findings actually contradict some prior research showing, for example, that it is girls with more friends who are more likely to gossip. The anthropologist Robin Dunbar has even likened gossiping to the mutual grooming performed by non-human primates, with both activities serving to enhance social bonds. “Perhaps high gossipers are individuals who we welcome into our social networks for fear of losing the opportunity to learn information, but we tend to keep them at arms length,” Farley said, attempting to reconcile her results with this earlier research. Another possibility is that the relationship between gossiping and social power is curvilinear, with low and high levels harming one’s social status, but the act of moderate gossiping attracting more favourable judgements. Unfortunately, the current study only asked participants to imagine high and low gossipers.
Another related line of research has documented a common-sense effect known as “the transfer of attitudes recursively“, which simply put has found that people who say nice things about others in their absence are judged as more likeable, whereas those who slag people off behind their backs are judged more harshly. The current study effectively extends this to show that negative gossipers are not only disliked, but also seen as socially weak.
“Despite the shortcomings of the present study, it represents one of a few empirical investigations into how gossipers are perceived by others,” Farley concluded. “Future research should consider other important moderators of gossip such as inclusion in the gossip, topic of the gossip, and motivations for gossip (group-serving versus self-serving).”
Farley, S. (2011). Is gossip power? The inverse relationships between gossip, power, and likability. European Journal of Social Psychology, 41 (5), 574-579 DOI: 10.1002/ejsp.821
Previously on the Digest: How our visual system is guided by gossip radar.