ICC student symposium 2013 at the Amsterdam University Colleg...
XOXO, You know we love you! – On gossip and its function in relationships.
Not only on the Manhattan Upper East Side gossip has had a crucial function in keeping social life in shape. In the popular American teen television series Gossip Girl (2007)¸the world of the rich and famous is held together by one person, and one person alone. The all-knowing, albeit and anonymous “blogger” Gossip Girl keeps the exclusive circle of upper-east-siders posted with the secrets and scandals of Manhattans elite. Society seems to have a controversial relationship to her; while most characters express their hate towards her, they also need her and rely on her. The strange relationship that these TV-characters have to one another leads one to question: What is there to sharing negative opinion and gossip that has such a binding function in social life?
The researchers Weaver & Bosson seem to have found an answer. According to their studies (2012), sharing negative attitudes towards a third person increases closeness to a stranger, even to a higher extent than a shared positive attitude does. Sounds strange? Think about this: one of your professors, Mr. Painintheneckt, constantly makes jokes throughout his lecture, which you see as irrelevant and inappropriate. Hence, you’ve come to dislike him. One day, your professor starts off his lesson with yet another joke. All of a sudden, your neighbor turns towards you and whispers: “So, here we go again. I guess that Mr. Painintheneck ate a clown for breakfast” (German saying used when someone isn’t funny). How do you think would you react? Exactly, you would react quite positively towards him/her.
The study explains this as follows: People who make acquaintance over a shared negative attitude towards, for example, a professor, subsequently believe to know more about the character of their acquaintance. This is seen in relation to those who have met while sharing positive attitudes over a professor. Moreover, the “sharer” of negative attitude is willing to infer further details about their acquaintance, such as political affiliation, hobbies and interests, and behavioral tendencies (2010, 485). This is justified by the fact that our social norms are primarily based on politeness and respect. Hence, we generally reveal desirable characteristics about ourselves when meeting new people. The disclosure of negative attitudes towards strangers is relatively rare and, as a result, “perceivers view negative attitudes especially informative; the person who expresses the negative attitude is thereby perceived as more familiar” (489).
By revealing our character through sharing negative opinions, we can facilitate social bonding. Another researcher, R. I.M. Dunbar, takes this analysis a step further and claims that gossip is an evolved mechanism for the bonding and maintenance of social groups throughout time (2004, 109). Upon other functions, Dunbar identifies a “policing function [of gossip] to control those who fail to abide by the formal and informal agreements that underpin society” (2004, 103). We can refer this back to the example of Mr. Painintheneck. Suppose you form more acquaintances on the basis of your negative opinion about your professor. Eventually, the voicing of your complaints might come to the attention of your professor, and ideally they will pressure him to omitting his jokes.
Thus, gossip plays a role not only in the formation of new relationships, but also in mediating social control. One might therefore question: If negative opinions have such a positive effect on social relations, why don’t we all pass through daily life, spreading our critical attitude towards the rest of the world? One must bear in mind that revealing negative attitudes, especially in the early process of friendship, can have severe deleterious effects on our relationships. After all, we generally feel more comforted and happy in a positive, not a negative, environment. Therefore, the act of gossiping is not exactly a “win-win-situation”. Attitudinal dissimilarity is unattractive, and the disclosure of negative opinion, especially when not shared, can inhibit the establishment of friendship. Not without reason, the ‘beloved’ Gossip Girl hides her identity well: “And who am I? That’s one secret I’ll never tell! Xoxo, you know you love me! ”
Dunbar, R. (2004). Gossip in Evolutionary Perspective. Review of General Psychology, 8(2), 100-110.
McAndrew, F. T., & Milenkov, M. A. (2006). Of Tabloids and Family Secrets: The Evolutionary Psychology of Gossip. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 32(5), 1064-1080.
Weaver, J. R., & Bosson, J. K. (2011). I feel like I know you: Sharing Negative Attitudes Promotes Feelings of Familiarity. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37(4), 481-491.