Is office gossip always bad?

Gossip is usually thought of in negative terms, helping to spread negativity through an office like wildfire.  Could it be that it actually helps to maintain a degree of order though?  That's the prognosis of some new research from the University of California, Berkeley.

It can also have some therapeutic values.  They found that participants in the study became anxious and uncertain whenever they saw someone acting badly.  This was tempered however whenever they told anyone about what they'd seen.  As the old saying goes, a problem shared really does appear to be a problem halved.

“Spreading information about the person whom they had seen behave badly tended to make people feel better, quieting the frustration that drove their gossip,” the research team said.

What's interesting is that we are so keen to spread the word about unsavoury things that we'd happily sacrifice money to do so.  In a standard economic trust game, players were found to sacrifice money readily in order to send a 'gossip note' to fellow players about a cheater in their midst.

Overall, the findings indicate that people need not feel bad about revealing the vices of others, especially if it helps save someone from exploitation, the researchers say.

“We shouldn’t feel guilty for gossiping if the gossip helps prevent others from being taken advantage of,” says social psychologist Matthew Feinberg, lead author of the paper.

“A central reason for engaging in gossip was to help others out—more so than just to talk trash about the selfish individual,” Feinberg says.  “Also, the higher participants scored on being altruistic, the more likely they were to experience negative emotions after witnessing the selfish behavior and the more likely they were to engage in the gossip.”

So it seems that gossip can have real value when used to warn people about potential trouble makers.  The researchers make no comment about gossip used to spread slightly less helpful rumours however.


Adi Gaskell is head of online at the Process Excellence Network