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Science Careers Blog

April 19, 2010

Gossip is Good, Even in the Lab

In a January Mind Matters column, Irene Levine argued that in the science lab, gossip has some positive aspects but needs to be handled very carefully. Not long after, I got a response from Richard Weiner, a writer and PR specialist who has written 23 books and made an informal study of the topic of gossip. He even has a blog devoted to the subject: TheGossipBook.com.

Weiner is a fascinating guy. He has written for many high-profile publications, including the New York Times. He broadcast the first radio description of an actual childbirth. William Safire described him,  in one of his language columns in the New York Times magazine, as "the media maven." He received the Gold Anvil Award for lifetime achievement in the PR field, from the Public Relations Society of America, the field's highest honor.

Remember the Cabbage Patch Kids phenomenon, when Christmas-shopping moms got in fistfights in the aisles of K-Mart, fighting over stuffed dolls? Richard Weiner, Inc., was the PR firm. In my estimation that makes Weiner the Babe Ruth, or maybe the Michael Jordan, of public relations.

Weiner wrote to take issue with our claim that lab gossipers should "proceed with caution."

In Weiner's estimation, gossip is an unmitigated good, with advantages that range from social to  medical. His smart, detailed response to Irene's column appears below. - On Twitter: @SciCareerEditor


Gossip Is Good, Rumors Are Bad; Gossip Is True; Rumors Are Not
When smokers huddle outside of buildings, they definitely can be harmed by their cigarettes, but their gossiping is likely to be beneficial.

During the last 3 years, I've been writing a book about gossip. My conclusion is contrary to the views of Irene S. Levine (Science Careers, Jan. 29), particularly her statement that "gossip is almost always based on unverified information."

Rumor and Gossip, the seminal book by psychologist Ralph L. Rosnow and sociologist Gary Alan Fine, was written in 1986. Since then, psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, physicians, neurologists, geneticists, and others have published innumerable papers on this subject.

When I met with Rosnow, emeritus professor of psychology at Temple University, he told me that gossip and rumor are not the same, though some dictionaries still use them as synonyms. Fine, now professor of sociology at Northwestern University, told me, "We generally gossip about people we care about."

What exactly is gossip? Gossip is simply a conversation, spoken or written, about the private lives of other people. Gossip invariably is about a person who is not present, often is judgmental, and generally is based on verified information.

Social scientists classify gossip as generally having a basis in fact or truth, as different from rumor, which usually is untrue in its origin. A rumor often is widely disseminated without a discernible source or known authority for its truth.

The sea change of gossip is that there now is less face-to-face and more transmission via cellphone, e-mail, and text messaging, so that we devote more time to gossip and gossip with more people than ever before.

Gossip is rampant among close-knit groups with common interests, such as at colleges, hospitals, and research centers. Gossip about errant behavior among laboratory workers, plagiarism by professors, and other misdeeds often are early warnings of serious problems.
Companies that ban gossip may proclaim their virtuousness, but offices that are overly controlling often have a "low-trust culture" that encourages aggressive, competitive gossip, whereas open, trusting workplaces tend to build friendships among workers.
Gossip helps in team building by creating cohesiveness.

Rumors often are destructive or negative and usually are not verified, whereas gossip is likely to be accurate (or close to it), Nicholas DiFonzo, professor of psychology at Rochester Institute of Technology, told me.

Many of us spend about half of all conversational time in gossip, according to the social scientists, and only a small amount of it is negative. Gossip is a social skill that can become a positive force in our lives. Sharing gossip, even when it's negative, is a sign of trust in the listener, and bonds the friendship between the gossiper and the listener.

Men and women, of all ages, gossip. Children start to gossip soon after they learn to talk. Adolescents and young adults gossip more than older people. Much of the gossip is positive or neutral, rather than negative. Gossip is a comfortable way to pass along information and preserve social networks.

Centuries of religious and legal restrictions and other taboos have not diminished gossip.  People with strong religious beliefs and moral codes generally claim that they refrain from gossip. In addition, many intellectual people disdain gossip as lowbrow. They can swear off gossip all they want to, but most highbrows gossip about professors or others in their "community."

The primary functions of gossip are to inform, influence, entertain, enhance friendship, reinforce moral standards, and help in making decisions. Gossip helps us to understand our own abilities, shortcomings, and problems, and sets parameters for our behavior.

Most of our gossip is about people we know -- not that gossip about celebrities isn't an important entertainment. Most celebrity gossip in the media is verified.

Gossip is a leveler, especially when it's about the bad behavior or embarrassing foibles of someone famous. This kind of information makes us all peers and keeps those who are more famous from seeming "better than us."

A team of researchers headed by Stephanie Brown, a psychologist at the University of Michigan Medical School, reported in 2009 that women who gossiped had higher levels of progesterone than non-gossipers. The increase of this hormone helps to reduce anxiety and stress and enhance friendships.

In moderate doses, gossip is physically beneficial and can stimulate opiate production, according to Oxford psychologist Robin Dunbar. An expert on primate behavior, Dunbar compared chimpanzees with humans. Grooming, often consisting of constant mutual stroking, is essential among chimps and produces euphoric highs. Grooming each other establishes relationships and indicates who's in and who isn't part of the group. Dunbar noted that mutual grooming increases the production of endorphins. In chimps, humans, and other primates, the endorphins reduce stress and produce a sense of power and self-control (like gossip!).

According to evolutionary anthropologists, from the time of the caveman gossip helped to find the best hunters and mates. The hunt for mates is still true.

Much remains to be learned about gossip. I recommend that you peruse the scientific literature and become a graduate student with one of the gossip researchers. If you've heard any good gossip about gossip research, please let me know (rweiner522@aol.com).
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