May 13, 2019
Gossip is the standard currency of human connection—a form of interchange accepted, used, and sought worldwide. And it’s the rare person who doesn’t exchange in personal small talk nearly every day. In fact, a study conducted recently at the University of California–Riverside has found that most people spend about 52 minutes per day, on average, talking to someone about someone else who is not present.
And surprisingly enough, the researchers claim that it’s the first-ever study to dig deep into who gossips the most and what topics they gossip about.
“There is a surprising dearth of information about who gossips and how, given public interest and opinion on the subject,” said Megan Robbins, an assistant psychology professor who led the study along with Alexander Karan, a graduate student in her lab.
But the researches started their study with one assumption: If you’re going to look at gossip like an academic, remove the value judgment we assign to the word. Gossip, in the academic’s view, is not bad. It’s simply talking about someone who isn’t present. That talk could be positive, neutral, or negative.
“With that definition, it would be hard to think of a person who never gossips because that would mean the only time they mention someone is in their presence,” Robbins said. “They could never talk about a celebrity unless the celebrity was present for the conversation; they would only mention any detail about anyone else if they are present. “Not only would this be difficult, but it would probably seem strange to people they interact with.”
During the course of their research, Robbins and Karan looked at data from 467 people between the ages of 18 and 58—269 women, 198 men—who participated in one of five studies.
Participants wore a portable listening device that Robbins employs in her research called the Electronically Activated Recorder, or EAR. The EAR samples what people say throughout the day: About 10% of their conversation is recorded; then analyzed, by research assistants.
The research assistants counted conversation as gossip if it was about someone not present. In all, there were 4,003 instances of gossip, sorted into three categories: positive, negative, or neutral. The assistants further coded the gossip depending on whether it was about a celebrity or acquaintance; the topic; and the gender of the conversation partner.
Among the results:
- Younger people engage in more negative gossip than older adults. There was no correlation with overall frequency of gossip when all three categories were combined.
- About 14% of participants’ conversations were categorized as gossip—or just under an hour out of 16 waking hours.
- Almost 75% of gossip was neutral. Negative gossip (604 instances) was twice as prevalent as positive (376).
- Gossip overwhelmingly was about an acquaintance and not a celebrity, with a comparison of 3,292 samples vs. 369.
- Extraverts gossiped far more frequently than introverts, across all three types of gossip
- Women gossiped more than men— but only in terms of neutral, information-sharing, gossip.
- Poorer, less education people don’t gossip more than wealthier, better-educated people.
A final result? Everyone gossips. “Gossip is ubiquitous,” the study concludes.
Think about your own conversations with a family member or friend: You talk about everyday things that keep you connected. You share that your daughter got her driver’s license or your uncle has a kidney stone.
“Much of it is just documenting facts, sharing information,” the researchers conclude.
The paper, “Who Gossips and How Often in Everyday Life,” was published online on May 2 in the journal, Social Psychological and Personality Science.
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