Why We Gossip: The Morality of an Immoral (but Irresistible) Pastime

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Oct 15, 2017

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When we think of gossip, we think of squandering time through random, idle conversations. It has received little scientific attention, perhaps naturally so: why would something as frivolous as gossip be the subject of study? But a more interesting question to ask is: Why is something that is seemingly immoral (or ‘not nice’) still a popular, almost universal, element of human interaction? Our recent research attempted to answer this question, and our findings reveal that gossip highlights the moral compass not only of the person you are gossiping about, but your own too.

What is morality?

Only a few scientists have spent time studying morality, which has been popularly thought of as an issue for religion to handle. The Moral Foundations Theory – the scientific explanation of morality’s underpinnings – is a rather new development. It identifies five basic principles, or foundations, of morality: care (vs harm), meaning we are able to feel and dislike someone else’s pain; fairness (vs cheating), meaning we want justice and rights; loyalty (vs betrayal) meaning we are willing to sacrifice ourselves for the groups we belong to; authority (vs subversion) meaning we generally respect authority and traditions; and sanctity (vs degradation) meaning we want to live in a more noble, and elevated, less carnal way. Different cultures place premiums on different principles, but around the world, what is moral is more or less defined as that which is caring, fair, loyal, customary and uplifting.

Why we gossip

In our study, we provided our participants with two scenarios: In the first, a fictitious person had an opportunity to cheat on their partner, and chose to do so, while in the second, the character chose not to cheat – a choice that tests all of the above moral principles. We, then, checked whether individuals would gossip for moral (the five foundations) or non-moral reasons (like entertainment, information gathering, or interpersonal curiosity), by asking participants about what they thought of the scenario in an anonymous survey.

We found that in the ‘immoral,’ cheating scenario, participants were not only more likely to gossip and spread the story, their gossip was more likely to be morally motivated, rather than motivated by any non-moral reasons. Moreover, we found that if a behaviour is thought of as disgusting, it is more likely to be gossiped about, regardless of whether it was considered moral or immoral. (For example, if you wear a sweater owned previously by Hitler, it is very likely that people will gossip about it. Think about it: There is nothing moral or immoral about it, and yet it is very likely to be considered disgusting.) This supports previous research that suggests gossip does not typically include positive information about others. The reasons why we gossip, it turns out, are connected to evaluating a moral compass, making gossip driven by the gossiper’s moral compass, rather than the content of what happened.

What do our findings this mean in real life? Let’s look at two managers, X and Y. Manager X is partial towards some employees, while Manager Y treats everyone the same. You and your colleagues are more likely to spread Manager X’s reputation for unfairness, than you are to spread Manager Y’s reputation for impartiality. This is because Manager X’s behaviour violates your moral code, not because it’s an entertaining story (though it may be).

What does this mean for society?

This is true at a societal level, too. Where you lie on the political spectrum (left leaning v/s right leaning) is closely connected to where you fall on each moral foundation’s spectrum. This is not surprising because political ideology dictates what is moral and what is not; both left and right ideologies endorse the principles of care and reciprocity, or fairness, as essential to morality, but only right-leaning ideology sees loyalty, authority, and sanctity as foundational to morality as well. (Which isn’t to say left-leaning ideology doesn’t value loyalty, tradition and nobility, just that these are more negotiable to its definition of morality.)

This means that when we gossip about others’ violation of morality, the person or people in question may not consider their behaviour a big deal at all. For example, Manager X’s unfairness to you may be seen by someone else as perfectly equitable, or at least, not so egregious. On a larger scale, an American liberal might be more likely to bemoan how black people in America aren’t treated equally (a violation of fairness), but a conservative, while potentially concerned by this, too, might be more angered by and vocal about many black athletes’ recent choice to kneel instead of stand during the national anthem (in protest of racial inequity), because their right-leaning ideology sees it as a threat to the American flag – a violation of both authority and sanctity. Similarly, in India, some people may be more likely to discuss the legality of marital rape in terms of a violation of basic human rights (a violation of the moral care foundation), while others, who may also value human rights, are more likely to think marital rape penalties represent the disintegration of marriage (a violation of authority and sanctity).

While gossip might seem a frivolous way to pass some time, it actually serves a purpose. According to evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar, gossip evolved to serve the function of policing others’ moral behaviour, particularly violations of group norms. In pointing out the moral wrongdoings of someone else, we are actually trying to maintain group harmony in the long run, he has written. Of course, what is harmony to some may actually be a source of concern for others – and echo chambers of both political and personal gossip have as much power to divide as they do to unite. So, remember: The next time you gossip about a person, you are highlighting what issues you hold dear as much as what they hold cheap.

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Written By Arathy Puthillam

Arathy Puthillam is a Research Assistant at the Department of Psychology, Monk Prayogshala, a not-for-profit research organisation based in Mumbai, India.

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