Gossip is Good? – Lucy Strikes Again!

By Shlomo  Maital  


Norman Rockwell’s take on ‘gossip’

 Financial Times columnist Lucy Kellaway has done it again!  This time, she writes about ‘gossip’ in her column – and manages to persuade us that  “gossip is particularly important in offices. It helps us know who to avoid, it undermines bullying bosses, it binds people together and shores up a company’s culture.”  And what’s more, she buttresses her unusual case with academic research.

   “….according to recent research from Stanford University, published in Psychological Science, not only have I done no harm by gossiping, I have been making the world a finer place. Talking about people behind their backs increases co-operation, upholds the moral code, punishes the selfish and rewards the unselfish. And if people know they get voted off the island for bad behaviour, they behave less badly.”

    According to the Psychological Science website,   “Their research shows that gossip and ostracism can have positive effects, serving as tools by which groups reform bullies, thwart exploitation of “nice people,” and encourage cooperation.  “Groups that allow their members to gossip,” said Feinberg, “sustain cooperation and deter selfishness better than those that don’t. And groups do even better if they can gossip and ostracize untrustworthy members. While both of these behaviors can be misused, our findings suggest that they also serve very important functions for groups and society.”

    The Jewish faith places gossip among the most heinous of sins.  In Hebrew, gossip is “lashon ha-ra”, which means, “evil tongue”.  Indeed, in our faith,  you must not speak evil of people behind their backs, or even to their face (destroying a person’s self-respect is a colorful Hebrew phrase, “le-halbin panim”, or literally, to ‘whiten somebody’s face’).   And,  you also must not even praise people excessively to their face.

     In the academic ‘publish or perish’ game, the more illogical, contrarian or radical your idea, the more likely you are to get it published.  “What’s new?” is what editors ask, and if the answer is, well, nothing much – don’t bother to submit.  So there is inherent bias toward articles like the one in Psychological Science about gossip, in which black is white, good is bad, and wrong is right.

    But Lucy – I don’t buy it.  Gossip is destructive. Period.  Norman Rockwell (above) got it right.

“Gossip and Ostracism Promote Cooperation in Groups”,   Psychological Science.   By Robb Willer, Stanford University,   in collaboration with co-authors Matthew Feinberg, a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford, and Michael Schultz from the University of California–Berkeley.