Gossip: The Psychology of Sh*t Talking

Gossip: The Psychology of Sh*t Talking

“Did you see that shirt David was wearing today? Did he get that from a dumpster” or “Did you hear that Mark makes $20k a month on the side? He doesn’t need to work here!”

Have you ever wondered WHY people gossip? Or maybe why YOU engaged in this often hurtful behavior?

Research has estimated that around 60 percent of time spent in conversations with other people involve some form of gossip regarding social relationships, professional accomplishments, or personal experiences.

Nigel Nicholson, Ph.D., writes in Psychology Today that gossip is a “guilty pleasure” that serves three essential purposes: networking, influence and alliance. Networking refers to the value people gain from impressing others by being “in the know.” Influence and alliance refer to the need to impress others and feel connected to them by sharing information, thereby making us feel closer to one another.

According to a Feb 27, 2015 article in Psychology Today entitled “Why We Love to Gossip”, Dr. Peggy Drexler states “Humans have a powerful drive to know about other people’s lives. It’s the fascination—often seasoned liberally with schadenfreude—behind a welter of magazines and television programs that have made celebrity gossip a more than $3 billion industry. “Your life may be more glamorous than mine,” we might think as we scan the covers, “but I’m not alcoholic.”

Externally, the gossiper often appears interesting, popular, strong, or factual, however, if you were somehow able to peer inside of his mind you would likely see things that you would never expect:

Jealousy, frustration, anger, weakness, and poor self-esteem.

Psychologically, people who tend to gossip generally have the goal of trying to elevate their own status (at the expense of others) while promoting their own competence as a means to feel superior.

Another psychological aspect responsible for gossip is projection. By projecting one of our own negative attributes (perhaps one that we happen to be in denial about) onto another person… it serves as a self-internalized justification mechanism. The temporary boost in self-esteem acts as a stimulus that is both rewarding and reinforcing… and can be associated with the development of an addiction. Yes, that right: an addiction to gossip. Well, actually an addiction to “feeling better” about oneself.

Perhaps not surprisingly, individuals with high self-esteem feel little need to gossip. These individuals are more concerned with their own personal lives, not half-truths or exaggerated competence.

I was taught “If you don’t have something nice to say about someone, don’t say it!” But, how many of us have ignored that centuries old axiom in favor of this guilty pleasure?

So… now that we understand the psychology and motivation behind gossip, let’s wrap things up with 4 simple ways to stop gossip in it’s tracks.

  1. Say something positive about the person who is the target of gossip. Just remember that there are positive aspects in every person.
  2. Point out missing or incorrect information. By challenging the gossiper to provide details (such as times and places of events that allegedly occurred) it forces the gossiper to consider whether information they might have received could be inaccurate.
  3. Confront gossip firmly. Stand up to people who are gossiping simply by stating that you “don’t want to hear it!”
  4. Change the subject! This is often the easiest tactic to distract the gossiper. Generally something interesting (and positive) will help to redirect the focus away from gossip, while also sending a clear message that you don’t wish to engage in their behavior.

“Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people.” – Henry Thomas Buckle