GOSSIP AND MENTAL HEALTH
The relationship one has with oneself is not only of personal interest but an important determinant of mental health. It is this relationship that can make or break persons, or that can render them successful, well-balanced individuals or unstable and unhappy shadows of the persons that they could have become at their full potential. One would think that this very important, personal bond human beings share internally could only be affected by one’s own self. But a great deal of human behavior is socially constructed and a large percentage of those social constructs are created to control and survive social situations.
In today’s society, people are often judged – at least in part -- based on their relationships; whether those relationships involve their boyfriend, husband, family, friends or lack thereof, all are social constructs. People today have begun to place such a large importance on their relationships with others that they may be losing the relationship with themselves. Is it possible that they are victims of over-socialization to the point that they can no longer understand or rationalize with themselves? Perhaps this is why so many people today require regular visits to mental health professionals to help them to sort themselves out, because it has become increasingly difficult to comprehend what they are thinking and feeling. This is especially true if they base their lives on the relationships that they have with others.
Understanding human relationships is imperative when attempting to unravel the complexities of one’s ‘mental health’, even though the concept of ‘mental health’ is not usually viewed in a social context, but instead, at the level of the individual. However, as society develops and as social norms change, people are increasingly identified and defined with respect to their relationships with others. It is this resultant definition that is often used to determine how mentally well balanced an individual is.
Close relationships are a form of bonding based on each party’s sense of trust in the other. Often, this trust is measured by how much the other confides in the other person and the degree to which this confidence will not be breached. One common form of initiating confidence originates in the practice of exchanging gossip with others and sharing the latest “news” about others in a group, be it amongst a loose group of “friends” or a more formal organizational group. Although taking a different form and content depending on the gender, ages and social hierarchy of those involved, this “all too human” activity can be found throughout the fabric of contemporary society.
A cynical Oscar Wilde once wrote, "There is only one thing worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about." In many people’s view, the only people who are not the subject of gossip are those at the very bottom of their social world. As Jennifer Drapkin reports in Psychology Today: “Luckily, gossip is self-perpetuating: The more people talk about you, the more important you become; and the more important you become, the more people talk about you.” (“Gossip’s Dirty Little Secret”, Psychology Today, November/December 2005)
Frank T. McAndrew, writing in the October 2008 Scientific American distills the benefits of gossip discussing how it can serve to:
• normalize and reinforce moral boundaries in a speech-community
• foster and build a sense of community with shared interests and information
• build structures of social accountability
• further mutual social grooming (like many other uses of language, only more so)
• provide a mating tool that allows (for example) women to mutually identify socially desirable men and compare notes on which men are better than others.
• be used as a form of passive aggression, as a tool to isolate and harm others
• provide a peer-to-peer mechanism for disseminating information in organizations
Sarah Wert, a psychologist at Yale, has gone so far as to conclude: “Not participating in gossip at some level can be unhealthy, and abnormal.” Wert’s research has led her to conclude that gossip “may also buffer against low-grade depressive moods” and “is often a healthy relief of social and professional anxiety.” (NYT, 16 Aug 2005). Taking the value of gossip even further, Psychologist Robin Dunbar at Oxford looks at gossip as an instrument of social order and cohesion--much like the endless grooming with which our primate cousins tend to their social relationships. (Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language, Harvard University Press, 1997)
A study described in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences indicates that individuals place so much trust in gossip that they often accept it as true even if their own experiences indicate otherwise. (Jeanna Bryner, “Study: Gossip Trumps Truth”, Live Science, http://www.livescience.com/health/071015-gossip-power.html.) There is clearly a problem when someone begins to doubt his or her own faculties and judgment so the value and effects of gossip need to be considered in more detail.
When by gossiping, two or more individuals are reaffirming their loyalty to each other and trading what could be vital or even interesting information (our boss is getting fired; our colleague is getting promoted; so-and-so is dishonest; Bob is cheating on his wife; I smelled alcohol on the professor’s breath), it can be clearly a positive action. By exchanging what they believe is privileged information, not only are they enjoying a stress-busting activity, but they are bonding and reinforcing a social network. This is positive, as it has been generally proven that people with tight social networks live longer and overall, are healthy both physically and mentally. “Not only are they less prone to depression, they are also less likely to die of heart disease, according to a study by Harvard researchers published in the June 1996 issue of the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.” (http://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=50842)
“Our mental design also includes a Machiavellian intelligence--the ability to empathize and read signs that indicate each other's motives and emotions. This is essential for ‘cheat detection,’ a key skill in the human tribe.” (“The New Word on Gossip”, Psychology Today, May/June 2001) But beyond its ability to convey information efficiently, gossip feels good. In humans gossip reportedly generates a small high that is magnified by the laughter that often accompanies it. Dunbar believes that "[this] may well explain why we spend so much time in our social conversations trying to make each other laugh." Laughing clearly relieves tension and apparently stimulates the release of endorphins in the brain.
But gossip is clearly a double-edged sword as it can hurt as well as help people. Although studies have shown it to be a very efficient means of communication (news or information can travel incredibly fast in this manner) with some studies showing that people spend up to 60 percent of their day chatting and gossiping about personal relationships and experiences. (Robin Dunbar, “Coevolution of neocortical size, group size and language in humans”) Psychologist James Lynch, PhD, author of The Broken Heart writes: “Gossip might temporarily bind people and relieve isolation, but it can lead to more isolation later on.” “In his book, first published in 1977, Lynch pioneered the notion that loneliness contributes to many causes of premature death, especially heart disease. Lynch is of the opinion that much loneliness is caused by dysfunctional patterns of communication -- including the tendency to trash friends and colleagues behind their backs.” (http://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=50842) It should come as no surprise then that all of the major monotheistic religions consider gossip no more than idle chatter or rumor-mongering and view it as a sin. Many commercial companies have formal policies that discourage gossiping even though they are difficult to enforce.
Albeit in varying degrees, it is evident that gossip plays a part in most people’s lives because it can engender a feeling of trust, intimacy and acceptance by social group that many correlate with balanced mental health and longevity. Conversely, most everyone knows that it can be vicious, hurtful and even damaging to both the person who engages in it as well as to a hapless victim of cruel “truths”. Although the subject of gossip clearly covers a wide swath of disciplines including sociology, psychiatry and psychology, its connection with knowledge about the human mind and biology will be explored. Is there in fact a connection? Why are some people seemingly more prone to gossip than others? Are there pathological gossipers and what is the reward system that might reinforce this type of behavior? Is there a feeling of guilt when someone has spread news about someone that although possibly true, should be kept discrete? Is there a relation between sociopathy and gossip? And ultimately, is this a hardwired behavioral pattern in the human brain as many science writers claim?
Because it is so pervasive, it might be useful to attempt to analyze gossip in order to better understand the workings of human relationships. This understanding could be useful in deciphering why today’s society defines people more on their social connections instead of who they are internally. Is it perhaps because gossip provides insights into people that aren’t otherwise available? Does this validate the view that people instinctively understand that gossip can be useful “to further their own reputations and selfish interests at the expense of others” (Scientific American Mind, Oct/Nov 2008). As societies grow and become larger and more impersonal, is gossip the easiest way of connecting with others? And how does this affect one’s mental wellbeing? Spending day after day worrying about what other people are saying about you and the way you lead your life is emotionally and mentally exhausting. But if everyone is engaging in the same activity, perhaps it is necessary for survival and emotional connectivity within a larger group.
Gossip seems to be the glue at all levels of society, from a small circle of friends, to peers in organizations, and even with respect to national and world leaders and celebrities. It is so ubiquitous and commonplace, that most people simply assume that it exists and is just another form of informal communication. Because it is so much a part of human activity, it warrants a closer look, with respect to how it shapes human behavior, defines individuals, and has a direct effect on a person’s self-image and mental health. How these elements interrelate will be explored