Social psychologist: gossiping ‘is not a character flaw. It’s a social skill’

The Vanderpump Rules cheating Scandoval has been in the public consciousness for the better part of the past three months. Some people, like me and my friends, are engrossed, while others either don’t care or make a point of saying how much they don’t care as if reality is irrelevant (it’s not). Like several other recent pieces, a new Yahoo! Life article examines why we care about this, but takes it a step further and contextualizes gossip as a part of socializing. Gossiping “is not a character flaw. It’s a social skill.” Love to hear it.

“I firmly believe that our fascination with gossip is part of human nature, it’s part of who we are. It’s not a character flaw. It’s a social skill,” social psychologist Frank McAndrew tells Yahoo Life. “It’s as much like breathing as anything else.”

While cavemen couldn’t have anticipated the inner workings of reality television, nor the scandals that cameras would capture, McAndrew explains that gossip and the knowledge that comes with it has been important throughout human history.

“People who were fascinated at the private lives of other people simply did better than people who didn’t, and over time, those genes are the ones that got passed down to us,” he says. “So like it or not, we’re the descendants of busybodies. It’s just in our nature to be that way.”

Meltem Yucel, postdoctoral associate at Duke University’s Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, notes that it plays an important role in our relationships and interactions with others.

“When someone gossips, they’re signaling to others which rules they care about,” she tells Yahoo Life. “Negatively gossiping with your friends about people cheating can show others that we think cheating is not OK — we wouldn’t cheat ourselves, and that we would not tolerate our friends cheating on their partners, or our partner cheating on us.”

It’s a “safer” way to enforce rules and standards without sacrificing personal relationships, she says, because of the distance between audiences and the people engulfed in drama on screen.

“When you gossip about people you actually know, it’s a risky thing to do … You might have some repercussions,” Yucel says, noting that taboo topics like sexual relationships inherently draw more interest. “These kinds of situations also inspire a lot of questions from us. What would I do if I knew my friend did this? What would I do if somebody did this to me? What would I do if my friend knew and didn’t tell me? So it also lets us put ourselves in these situations and again, in somewhat of a safer way, because this isn’t happening to us.”

But also, celebrities matter to us. Despite the one-sided nature of parasocial relationships with TV stars and celebrities, McAndrew assures audiences that there is a real connection that drives the curiosity and intrigue displayed during these scandals.

“You know more about a lot of celebrities than you probably know about your next door neighbor,” he says. “And that means they are part of your world, and that’s why we need to know more about them.”

[From Yahoo! Life]

I agree with this theory on its face and also the deeper analysis in the article. Everyone gossips, whether they want to admit it or not. Even if you don’t gossip among friends or colleagues, gossiping to one person — like to significant other or your mom or that one person you know that doesn’t know any of the other people you know — that counts. People are curious about other people, people think about other people, people compare other people, and yes, people judge other people. The article makes the point that gossiping signals what rules and norms we care about, like cheating, but I would also argue that it shows who we do and don’t care about based on who we gossip to. For example, someone might engage in gossip about their HOA (like my mom does), but refrain from gossiping about someone with whom they actually have a close personal relationship. And I think the social skill aspect comes into play because there’s sometimes a delicate calculation to be made about what’s appropriate to share based on the subject and the audience. Anyway, all this to say that gossip is a natural part of our society and a lot of it — like the VPR scandal — is relatively low stakes compared to a lot of the egregious stuff that is such a staple of our news today.

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14 Responses to “Social psychologist: gossiping ‘is not a character flaw. It’s a social skill’”

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  1. 411fromdownunder says:


  2. Lux says:

    Newsflash—something can be both a character flaw AND a social skill set. Tons of correlations here. It might just be that being social (even in the negative context of gossip) is better than being anti-social.

    Other observations from a non-social psychologist (aka myself):

    -Community/watering holes=foundation of civilization=social skills

    -Gossiping=remembering and caring about the minutiae of other people’s lives (think Elle Woods pool float scene)=exercising cognitive skills=good for your brain

    -Indulging in collective social outrage=bonding/I feel so close to you right now=common enemy identified

    • HelloDolly! says:

      Gossip can also be a form of resistance. The firing of a UCSC professor due to sexual misconduct started with gossip. The gossip then became a circulated google doc of the man’s harassment and that google doc then made its way to the university. He was fired within a year or two.

      I gossip to my younger colleagues about the conduct of the older gen of professors I work with who are incredibly inequitable and unprofessional. I consider this a public service, since I am letting younger gens know how unprofessional and vindictive they can be and to steer clear.

  3. frenchylarue says:

    After a quick lit search, I see no support for the theory that gossip is genetically based (i.e., genetically coded). Rather, it’s a social skill: Nurture, not Nature.
    But damn, I do enjoy me some. Gossip, that is. Y’all can draw any other conclusions you wish, and pass it on at the water cooler.

  4. KrystinaJ says:

    Gossip almost destroyed my life – and my kid’s. So I shall respectfully disagree with this.

  5. Stephanie says:

    I always thought “gossip” was considered bad because it was associated with women or because it was women warning other women about shitty men. Men simply catch up with each other (though in reality it’s the same types of conversation!)

  6. Spillthattea says:

    I don’t know anything about this but his epically bad hair (facial and otherwise) is very distracting.

  7. Normades says:

    A couple of years ago a research poll was published about the websites with the highest educated readership. Celebitchy was one of the highest rated sites which didn’t surprise me in the least because no matter what subject (science, medicine, law etc) there are always people on here who are extremely knowledgeable professionals. Also just the reflection and quality of the comments. So yes, like the byline says « escapism can be smart »!

  8. tealily says:

    I would also add that gossiping can be a way to warn people you care about of a danger or bad experience, whether that be with an employer, a business, or an individual. As this article points out, though, there are nuances to gossip. Just sitting around s—talking about people isn’t cool.

  9. ME says:

    I always thought “gossip” was when people went around saying untrue things about other people (mostly out of jealousy). Gossip can ruin lives. It’s not a trait to be proud of. People tend to believe anything they hear. Very few question a person’s intentions. Like “Why is this person talking about this other person like that?”. “How do I know they are telling the truth”? Gossip, most of the time is FALSE.

    • HelloDolly! says:

      What’s interesting is that I think gossip can take many forms, and I do believe you are pointing to the form of gossip that’s anti-social or not benefiting the public good. I agree! I have a colleague who gossips about students and faculty to other students, and this is typical bad behavior and inherently anti-social.

      There is, however, gossip that serves the community–the kind of gossip that works to prevent people we know and love from getting involved with people, businesses, etc. who have just not been caught yet doing unethical things. I work with men who do all sorts of unethical things—one man verbally promised me a certain stipend for my work on a project, I did the work, and then he gaslit me and acted like the conversation never happened. I now make sure to tell any new colleagues who I get to know to watch out for this man’s practices, because if he is perfectly willing to fleece a colleague (me) out of money, what else is he capable of doing?

      • ME says:

        You make good points. However, you warning someone else about a person who did you wrong is not gossip. That’s simply warning someone that someone else is not a good person (because you personally were the victim of his bad actions). Gossip to me would be if someone just ASSUMES something about someone without proof or personal experience. “Well he just looks like a bad guy so don’t trust him”…you know those types of comments? “She looks like a skank so stay away from her”. No merit, no experience, just speculation. That seems more like gossip. I don’t know.

  10. BMSA says:

    This is exactly what I’m doing my PhD on. The things that happen with people when they gossip, for good or for ill, are amazing.