Good Gossip?

by Dr. Elizabeth Mitchell on June 4, 2011

NPR: “Psst! The Human Brain Is Wired For Gossip Good gossip?!

Psychologists recently studied the impact of negative gossip. Volunteers were shown photos along with positive and negative comments. Then, peering at those faces alongside neutral photos in a binocular viewer, they tended to pay more attention to faces associated with slanderous remarks.

Because the study measured unconscious visual behavior, psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett comments, “Gossip doesn't just influence your opinions about people, it actually influences how you see them visually.” She adds, “Usually we assume that what you see influences what you feel, but here we have a case where what you feel about someone influences what you see visually.”1 She believes “this strategy may have evolved to protect us from liars and cheaters. If we see them for longer periods of time, then we can gather more information about their behavior.”

Some interpretations go even farther. Knox College psychologist Frank McAndrew, for instance, is excited about these results from an evolutionary perspective. He says, “For years, people like me have been saying that our intense interest in gossip is not really a character flaw. It's part of who we are. It's almost a biological event, and it exists for good evolutionary reasons. . . . If somebody is a competitor or somebody is higher than you in the food chain, you want dirt about them. You want negative information, because that's the stuff you can exploit to get ahead.”

He associates talebearers with untrustworthy flatterers in Proverbs 20:19 and those who cannot be trusted to maintain confidences in Proverbs 11:13.

God actually has quite a bit to say about gossip in the Bible. He associates talebearers with untrustworthy flatterers in Proverbs 20:19 and those who cannot be trusted to maintain confidences in Proverbs 11:13. He describes the impact of human eagerness for a juicy bit of dirt in Proverbs 26:22: “The words of a talebearer are like tasty trifles, and they go down into the inmost body.” He associates gossip with injustice, false witness, and hatred in Leviticus 19:16. And He points to the devastating conflicts gossip sparks when He says in Proverbs 26:20Where there is no talebearer, strife ceases.

Thus, the evolutionary man-centered view looks upon gossip as a protection and personal weapon in a dog-eat-dog world. But gossip is often untrue. There should be no survival advantage associated with false information. God, on the other hand, sees the urge to gossip as sinfully tempting and universally destructive. He exhorts us to love our neighbors as ourselves.

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Footnotes

  1. Northeastern University: Gossip triggers defensive response

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