- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Call it the scuttlebutt hour.

People engage in verbal gossip about 52 minutes a day, with women and men generally dishing the same amount of dirt, and richer and poorer folks equally airing others’ dirty laundry, according to a study.

Although idle chatter is commonly seen as negative, the study adds to a growing body of psychological research that has examined gossip’s broader social functions, including how society deals with anxieties and uncertainties.

“Gossip has a bad reputation because it can be mean-spirited, but the overwhelming majority of gossip is neutral,” study co-author Megan Robbins told The Washington Times.

She is a psychologist, researcher and an assistant professor at the University of California, Riverside. Her study was published this month in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

Ms. Robbins, who has a Ph.D. in social psychology, worked with a team of researchers, focusing on who engages in verbal gossip the most, what topics are discussed and how often it happens.

Their analysis explored more than 4,000 instances of gossip among 467 people who agreed to wear portable recording devices for two to five days. The 269 women and 198 men who participated in the study ranged in age from 18 to 58.

Building upon theories about social learning, including what type of information and behavior gets people punished, the researchers coded gossip for positive, negative and neutral sentiments; by whether the subject of the gossip was an acquaintance or celebrity; and by topic, which included social information, physical appearance and achievement.

About 14% of all conversations involved gossip, making up almost an hour for every 16 waking hours.

As would be expected, those who identified as extroverts tended to be the most frequent gossipers.

What stood out about the work, Ms. Robbins said, was that almost three-fourths of the gossip was seen to be neutral and “overwhelmingly about an acquaintance as opposed to a celebrity.”

“In many cases, gossip could be thought of as news,” she said. “These are smaller stories that people need to know, so they are conveying information.”

Commenting on the study, Stanford University social psychologist Robb Willer said the spread of rumors about people who have behaved badly allows friends and acquaintances to know whom to trust and whom to avoid.

“The threat of gossip deters bad behavior in the first place as people seek to avoid developing a bad reputation,” said Mr. Willer, who has published extensive research on the subject. “Of course, all gossip is not good or functional for society.”

That appears to be the case for the more than 90% of American teens who engage daily in a wide range of online activities on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram — where cyberbullying is pervasive, researchers say.

Bullying has long been a part of adolescent life, but the online version has made it more dangerous because of the intimacy and immediacy created by ever-present smartphones and social media, child psychologists say.

According to the Pew Research Center, 59% of U.S. teens have personally experienced at least one of six types of abusive online behaviors. The most common was name-calling.

In a poll released late last year, Pew found that 42% of teens said they were called offensive names online or via their cellphones, and 32% said someone had spread false rumors about them on the internet.

“Without question, cyberbullying is a problem and a concern that worries mental health experts, school psychologists, parents, teachers, students, everyone,” Katherine Cowan, director of communications at the National Association of School Psychologists, told The Times.

Among other key findings of Ms. Robbins’ study was that women engaged in more neutral gossip than men and that younger people tended to gossip more negatively than older people.

“As people get older, they get more stable and mature,” she said. “That is consistent with psychological studies.”

She also dispelled the stereotype that poorer, less-educated people gossip more than those who are wealthier and better educated.

“Regardless of how much money people have, they gossip the same amount,” she said.

• Dan Boylan can be reached at dboylan@washingtontimes.com.

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