Does gossip really make people less likeable?

Photograph by kamshots

For anyone interested in gossip, there was a little study published by Sally Farley a few days ago in the European Journal of Social Psychology (here are links to the original article and the blog post where I found it). She divided her student participants into groups, and asked each group to think about someone they knew who either talked about absent people a lot or infrequently, and who said either positive or negative things about them (the word gossip was not used directly, because of the negative connotations associated with this word). She then gave the participants questionnaires to indicate how much they liked that person, and how much social power they thought they had.

The headline finding was that people thought that those who gossip frequently are less likeable, and have less social power, than those who gossip infrequently. Actually, though, there was a bit of spin here (sorry to rant on about this sort of thing again after my last post, but it is annoying how often academics will spin some rather unexciting results into something that looks more interesting).

While it is true that an ANOVA revealed a main effect of gossip frequency, if you look at Tables 1 and 2 in the article (Table 2 is reproduced below) it is clear that this effect was driven solely by one of the four conditions – one in which the imagined acquaintance produced a high frequency of negative gossip. The high-frequency, positive gossip condition was almost identical for both power and likeability scores to the low-frequency, positive gossip condition, and even slightly (though insignificantly) higher than the low-frequency, negative gossip condition:

Gossip frequency
High Low
Gossip valence M SD M SD
Positive 48.44 8.37 48.63 8.27
Negative 37.09 10.59 46.03 10.08

Table 2 (from Farley, 2011). Mean liking ratings as a function of gossip valence and gossip frequency

The problem for Farley is that reading that “people who say nasty things behind others’ backs are disliked” is not nearly as exciting as reading that “people who gossip are disliked” – so she naturally puts the emphasis on the main effect rather than on a more fine-grained, post hoc analysis. This would be interesting because it seems to fly in the face of popular theories such as those of my former colleague Robin Dunbar (whose book, Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language (2004) is well worth a read, for those who have not yet come across it) which hold that gossip is a kind of “relational glue” that helps to hold human societies together.

To be fair, she had also hypothesised in this study that people who frequently spread positive gossip would be more liked than people who infrequently did so, so she is legitimately able to claim that this hypothesis has been refuted by her data. This prediction was based on observational studies that showed that people who occupy a strong position in social networks tend to do a lot of gossip (in line with Dunbar’s theory). The trouble is, I am not sure that her methodology is as well placed as observational methods to refute this idea. Apart from the obvious possible influence of norms against gossip in an interview scenario (which I don’t think simply not mentioning the word gossip would entirely obviate), this is mainly because she asked participants to imagine “people who spent a lot of time talking about other people when they (were) not around”. Pragmatically, this seems to indicate people who spend an abnormal amount of time talking about other people, and abnormal tendencies rarely attract positive judgements. It also perhaps indicates people who talk about people behind their backs relatively more than they talk about them to their face – hardly a quality associated with social power or liveability.

It would have been nice, therefore, to include some sort of control conditions: perhaps considering people who talk “a lot” about something asocial, like a hobby (are they seen as boring, and therefore unlikeable?); or people who criticise other people to their face as well as behind their backs (this may be what a lot of socially powerful people are really like); or people who spread a lot of neutral, objective gossip (those who are central to social networks may spend a lot of time talking about social facts, e.g. who is friends with whom, who has just got married or had a baby, or who is earning lots of money, without necessarily praising or criticising people all the time). Farley would have actually had enough participants to add more conditions, since she originally planned a 2x2x2 between-groups ANOVA (i.e. 8 different conditions), varying target gender (the gender of the imagined person) as well as the frequency and valence of gossip, only to discard target gender because it had no effect. This was a bit of a silly choice for a between-groups condition, though, because she could have just asked participants to imagine both a man and a woman who gossiped a lot/little.

Neither was I convinced by the author’s explanation for why negative gossips were so disliked. She linked this result to the transfer of attitudes recursively (TAR) effect, by which making positive/negative statements about a third party tends to lead an audience to make identically valenced judgements about the speaker. The problem is that her data does not show this, because the frequent positive gossipers do not seem to have had any positive attitudes transferred to them. It seems rather as if participants are (not unreasonably) singling out frequent negative gossip as a reliable indicator of low power/likeability, while not making any particular judgements about the other conditions.

So, on the whole I was not terribly impressed by this little article, I’m afraid; but it is certainly an interesting area and it opened up some empirical ideas for me in terms of testing similar hypotheses in online social networks. Does making positive or negative FB posts make you more or less liked? What about making such posts about public figures who are themselves liked/disliked?

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