Gossip: It’s All the Talk

Gossip and rumors are not a new phenomenon. Dating back to the birth of language, we have seen the spread of information through “whisper campaigns” and social systems. Two recent studies have provided some significant insights to better understand and mitigate the impact of gossip. The first comes from research by UC Riverside examining common stereotypes and myths about gossip. According to researcher Megan Robbins, the first step in understanding gossip is to look at it like an academic and remove the value judgment we give to the word. Gossip is neither good nor bad; it is simply the act of talking about another person when they are not present. The content of the gossip could be positive, neutral, or negative. Participants (467 ranging from 18-58 years old) were monitored using an electronic listening device. The content of their conversations were analyzed with some interesting results:

  • All participants engaged in some form of gossip-on average, 52 minutes a day.
  • Extroverts were more likely to gossip than introverts across all categories
  • While women did gossip more than men, it was only in the neutral/information-sharing category, not the negative gossip stereotype that tends to exist.
  • Almost 75 percent of the gossip recorded was neutral, and negative gossip was twice as likely as positive gossip

Understanding how gossip spreads in various social networks was the focus of the research in the second study conducted by the University of Illinois at Chicago. Applying a statistical modeling technique used to understand how both disease and information spreads across social systems, researchers were interested in understanding more about how many types of people (friends, colleagues, broadcasters, etc.) do we tend to need to hear information from before we start transmitting it as a true fact? In systems relying on diverse, trusted sources (e.g. a “left-leaning” source, a “right-leaning” source, and a “neutral” source) gossip traveled more slowly compared to systems relying on “similar” sources (e.g. Facebook’s Newsfeed algorithm). These insights can be applied to minimizing instances of polarization, groupthink, and echo-chambers in group decision making. Intentionally presenting and requiring diverse data sets and sources before taking something as “fact” can slow down gossip and rumor chains.