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Rumour has it...
Studies suggest gossip isn't as bad as you think

First published January 27, 2012 | Click here for the original online article

"Tell me about your date last night. Tell me everything."

Most women have been in this situation or one similar to it before, and come on guys, most of you have gossiped about something or someone at some point. Before your cheeks go red and you get all flustered and embarrassed about gossiping, you should realize that not all gossip is bad.

In fact, in a recent study done by social psychologists at University of California, Berkeley, researchers noticed that certain types of gossip encouraged people to care about the rights, feelings and welfare of others.

The researchers observed their subjects watch other people cheat in games, and their interactions with each other. When given the opportunity, the impartial watcher would alert the player of the game who was not cheating of their opponent's dirty tactics.

Robb Willer, one of the researchers from UC Berkeley, said in a statement, "When we observe someone behave in an immoral way, we get frustrated. But being able to communicate this information to others who could be helped makes us feel better."

We see things like this all the time on websites such as Urbanspoon, or Yelp. If someone has a negative experience at a restaurant, store or dentist, they share it with the online community because it makes them feel better.

Some say this also helps consumers make better choices about where they spend their money, and inadvertently causes businesses to treat customers better to avoid negative reviews.

It doesn't have to be negative either; there are many online reviews that rave about businesses such as Kinjo Sushi & Grill, currently Yelp's top-rated sushi restaurant in Calgary. One Yelp user claims that when he drives from Lethbridge to visit Calgary, he weeps if he "can't make time for this place."
Another study done earlier in 2011 by psychologists at the University of Amsterdam also found that gossip is essential to a group's survival. If someone believes there is a chance they may be negatively gossiped about, they increase their contributions to the group, and as the researchers put it, "reduce free riding."

Most of us have had that friend that shows up to the party with nothing, expecting their friends to toss them a beer and feed them. If this person realized that they were likely being negatively gossiped about they probably would stop, or try to fix their negative behaviour.

Of course we don't want to hurt our friends' feelings. Wouldn't that just diminish their self-esteem? Don't those who gossip about their friends just have low self-esteem themselves? David Watson at Grant MacEwan University in Edmonton wrote a paper last year on gossip and self-esteem asking the same questions.

Much like the researchers at UC Berkeley, Watson found that when people use gossip for friendship or social bonding purposes they are likely to have higher self-esteem.

However, Watson's paper suggests spreading negative, hurtful or untrue gossip about others in a way that does not contribute to their benefit is a sign of someone who is using gossip for power and has low self-esteem.

Matthew Feinberg, another of the researchers from UC Berkeley said in a statement, "A central reason for engaging in gossip was to help others out – more so than just to talk trash about the selfish individual."

It seems fairly obvious, but the question is how to distinguish between the good gossip and the bad. If your gossip can't create a positive outcome then it is probably best left unsaid.

That means gossiping about how frizzy your friend's hair was the other day probably isn't the best use of your time, but gossiping about how a friend in your group cheats all the time may encourage that friend to stop their negative behaviour.

Gossip is still a dangerous game. If in doubt, just remember what Thumper's mother said in "Bambi," "If you can't say something nice... don't say anything at all."

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