Why are we so very interested in hearing gossip about others’ achievements and failures? Researchers Elena Martinescu, Onne Janssen and Bernard Nijstad of the Faculty of Economics and Business at the University of Groningen state that gossip provides individuals with indirect social comparison information, which is in-turn valued highly by receivers because it provides an essential resource for self-evaluation. ‘We should accept gossip as a natural part of our lives’, they say.
Martinescu, Janssen and Nijstad studied the effect positive and negative gossip has on how the recipient evaluates him or herself and published an article in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. They found that individuals that received positive gossip had increased self-improvement value, whereas negative gossip had increased self-promotion value. Negative gossip also increased self-protection concerns. There is a difference between the impact of the effects between men and women.
“Hearing positive stories about others may be informative, because they suggest ways to improve oneself,” lead researcher Elena Martinescu explains. “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.”
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. However, the results were surprising, and alertness was high for both positive and negative gossip, presumably because both types of gossip are highly relevant for the receiver.
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,” Elena Martinescu elaborates.
Since gossip provides an essential resource for self-evaluation, Martinescu and her colleagues suggest that instead of eliminating gossip, 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.” Receiving gossip about other people is a valuable source of knowledge about ourselves, because we implicitly compare ourselves with the people we hear gossip about.
Martinescu, E., Janssen, O., Nijstad, B.A. (2014). Tell Me the Gossip: The Self-Evaluative Function of Receiving Gossip About Others. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 40(12).
Note for the press
For more information: Elena Martinescu, Onne Janssen and Bernard Nijstad
The Dutch Research Council’s (NWO) Social Sciences and Humanities Domain Board has awarded two grants to professor Bernard Nijstad and professor Boudewijn de Bruin.
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