I think we’ve all experienced it: the whisper of a rumor, a hint of uncouth behavior, the speculation about so-and-so’s secrets...
On my part, I’ve noticed our magnetic pull towards gossip in get-togethers and lunchtime chats. Someone mentions anything about anyone—a cheating incident, a date, a broken friendship—and the whole group turns around simultaneously and cries “Who! What? When!”, abandoning the birthday celebration or their homework. I, for one, have been guilty of participating and propagating gossip; sometimes it seems that it is too fun to resist. At the same time, I realize I am creating the competitive, snarky, mean society that I claim to hate.
Recent studies have shown evolutionary advantages to gossip: it helps you predict who is friend and foe. Gossip was a heuristic used by primitive humans living in small groups to determine who might be a threat and who was after a particular mate. As one professor put it, "If somebody is higher than you in the food chain, you want dirt about them. You want negative information, because that's the stuff you can exploit to get ahead."
However, at the same time, gossip has a lasting effect on how we perceive people and how we act. One study has shown that peoples’ brains are more likely to pay more attention to individuals associated with negative gossip. Our brains are essentially prioritizing this information over positive or neutral facts.
But gossip has more power than just effecting how we personally view our peers. It creates a social hierarchy and negative community that values degrading other people to make ourselves feel better. Philosopher Jean-Jacque Rousseau said that civilized society has taken away one of our most human traits: pity for others. In today’s hyper-competitive and intense culture, the knowledge of those with less resources, wealth, or power than you is a sign that you are doing well. Think about it: hearing that someone made morally ‘inferior’ choices than you or has been denied from a school you’ve been accepted to indicates that you are on the right track. But what has that done to our humanity?
Sure, it seems that gossip is harmless and fun, a way to connect with friends and be in the loop. And no, I am not saying that gossip has single-handedly ruined our society; however, I am saying that is has caused deep issues in school and other communities. How many feelings have been hurt by the spreading of false rumors? How many negative opinions about others have been spread? And let’s be honest, how many times have you felt a little stirring of self-satisfaction when you hear about a rumor about something you never would have done?
Ultimately, gossip intensifies our tendencies to base our morals and self-worth on the actions of others. It also leads to many more divisions, cliques, and inter-competition that almost any other habit. I know I want to stop competing with my peers and comparing myself to others. I also know that this very comparison has led to countless cases of anxiety, depression, and dread of school by students and adults all over the world.
Nonetheless, I am a hypocrite, and I have gossiped my fair share over the years. But realizing the cumulative and social impacts of my actions, I am making a pledge to myself to think more wisely about my participation. It’s hard, especially when gossip seems to be a top conversational topic—we even gossip about teachers! However, the hardest thing would be to live for the rest of my life in the endless rat-race of competition, depression, and negativity.
 Hamilton, Jon. “Psst! The Human Brain Is Wired For Gossip,” NPR, May 20, 2011, http://www.npr.org/2011/05/20/136465083/psst-the-human-brain-is-wired-for-gossip.
Semensky is a contributor for The Millennial Times.