Tuesday, January 4, 2011

No Shame Gossip

Here's Jonathon Haidt in his nugget-rich Happiness Hypothesis:
Gossip is overwhelmingly critical, and it is primarily about the moral and social violations of others. (For college students, this meant a lot of talk about the sexuality, cleanliness, and drinking habits of their friends and roommates.) People do occasionally tell stories about the good deeds of others, but such stories are only one tenth as common as stories about transgressions. When people pass along high-quality ("juicy") gossip, they feel more powerful, they have a better shared sense of what is right and what's wrong, and they feel more closely connected to their gossip partners....

[M]ost people hold negative views of gossip and gossipers, even though almost everyone gossips.... [We] came to believe that gossip is underappreciated. In a world with no gossip, people would not get away with murder but they would get away with a trail of rude, selfish, and antisocial acts, often oblivious to their own violations. Gossip extends our moral-emotional toolkit.... Without it, there would be chaos and ignorance. 
Based on the above, it seems like not gossiping would be selfish. By abstaining, you save yourself from feelings of guilt, and you earn a reputation as reserved and trustworthy, if boring. Yet if nobody gossiped, we'd all be much worse off. This can still be true even if the marginal piece of gossip is harmful, and is another example of why categorical imperatives ("don't gossip" has 1.25 million google hits) are often flawed.