When Morality meets Gossip!

A recent research looks at the how people gossip when the scenario violates their moral standards as compared to when it does not. The findings are as interesting as both constructs being considered.

Mumbai, July 11th 2017.

So far, most of us were misled to believe that gossip is just a meaningless activity. A complete waste of time, an activity that is characteristic of fickle mindedness. Recent research by Fernandes et al. from Monk Prayogshala published in the Journal of Basic and Applied Social Psychology, however looks at the intersection of moral foundations and gossip. The two studies explored whether or not people would gossip more, when the person being gossiped about violates the moral values held by the person who's gossiping.

Now that's a really fresh and interesting take on why people gossip. After all, gossip is something that everyone takes part in, even if it is just once in a while. It is an essential element of every informal human gathering, a way of socialisation, maybe even finding a common ground to connect with people who matter. And people never run out of topics to gossip on: from tabloids to local community tales, from international issues to the goings-on in the next door neighbour's place. Sometimes knowingly and sometimes innocuously, we all tend to gossip.  

What's interesting in the present study is the moral dimension to gossiping that is explored. As per the results of the first study, wherein the participants were exposed to a negative scenario involving a married friend flirting and kissing someone at a party, those who chose to transmit gossip did so for moral reasons more than non-moral ones (like entertainment). So, if your friend's act violated your moral standards in any way, you are more likely to discuss the information you have with another person for moral motives.

But there's a very interesting twist in the tale wherein the researchers even looked at whether individuals would be more likely to transmit gossip when they perceived the target as aligning with their moral foundations. Here, the participant in the role of the potential gossiper receives a scenario in which they notice a friend engaging in positive behaviour—refraining from a temptation to be unfaithful to their partner. The researchers found that the positive scenario led to fewer associations between morality and gossip as compared to the negative scenario, consistent with earlier research suggesting that gossip does not typically include positive information about others in absentia, as gossip is inherently negative in its nature. Reflecting back, do you think this holds true for you?

Morality, a much debated topic in itself is paired here with another topic that is equally contentious. It is seen that morality shares a kind of paradoxical relationship with gossip. On one hand, many are of the opinion that gossip can be regarded as immoral behaviour, whereas on the other hand this research showed that it was the individual’s identification with morality that spurred the engagement in such behaviour. Moral judgments by participants, who were potential gossipers, were closely related to whether individuals appraised information in human interactions as gossip. Moral motives went a step further, by influencing whether or not individuals gossiped, more so when the behaviour was perceived to be negative and strongly related to violations of the gossiper’s own moral foundations. The decision to evaluate the target, and transmit gossip for moral motives more than non-moral ones, was elicited from participants, emphasizing the why of gossip behaviour. These results supported the view that gossip was not content-driven but person-driven. Hence, understanding the internal motivations of potential gossipers and social context of an everyday behaviour such as gossip would help gain insight into this common albeit interesting phenomenon. This research is one step in that direction. So next time we you gossip or hear a really juicy piece of gossip, see if something from this research appeals to your gossip appetite.

Article details:

Fernandes, S., Kapoor, H., & Karandikar, S. (2017). Do we gossip for moral reasons? The intersection of moral foundations and gossip. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 0(0), 1–13.

A copy of the paper is available to credentialed journalists upon request.

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Monk Prayogshala

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