Gossip as power and control


This is a re-post of thoughts published in a past post.

I have been thinking and processing two interesting articles. One is on gossip and the other is on information addiction. The science of gossip is quite interesting. Of course, we all gossip, science would say it is part of our socialization processes. Used negatively, however, it really is an attempt to tear down and/or exert power over someone who has more influence than us or who is on the rise in their influence but whom those in control want to normalize and bring conformity to their behavior.

The gossip study comes from the October 1, 2008 edition of Scientific American Magazine. The article is entitled, “The Science of Gossip: Why We Can’t Stop Ourselves“. The author of the article, Frank T. McAndrew states,

Only in the past decade or so have psychologists turned their attention toward the study of gossip, partially because it is difficult to define exactly what gossip is. Most researchers agree that the practice involves talk about people who are not present and that this talk is relaxed, informal and entertaining. Typically the topic of conversation also concerns information that we can make moral judgments about. Gossip appears to be pretty much the same wherever it takes place; gossip among co-workers is not qualitatively different from that among friends outside of work. Although everyone seems to detest a person who is known as a ¢â‚¬Å“gossip¢â‚¬ and few people would use that label to describe themselves, it is an exceedingly unusual individual who can walk away from a juicy story about one of his or her acquaintances, and all of us have firsthand experience with the difficulty of keeping spectacular news about someone else a secret.

Gossip functions as a socializing process. In his book Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language, psychologist Robin Dunbar of the University of Liverpool in England suggested that gossip is a mechanism for bonding social groups together, analogous to the grooming that is found in primate groups. Sarah R. Wert, now at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and Peter Salovey of Yale University have proposed that “gossip is one of the best tools that we have for comparing ourselves socially with others.”

Gossip can be an effective means of uncovering such information about others and an especially useful way of controlling free thinkers who may be tempted to violate group norms. “Studies in real-life groups such as California cattle ranchers, Maine lobster fishers and college rowing teams confirm that gossip is used in these quite different settings to enforce group norms when an individual fails to live up to the group¢â‚¬â„¢s expectations”. In each of these groups, “individuals who violated expectations about sharing resources and meeting responsibilities became frequent targets of gossip and ostracism, which applied pressure on them to become better citizens. Anthropological studies of hunter-gatherer groups have typically revealed a similar social control function for gossip in these societies.”

According anthropologist Jerome Barkow of Dalhousie University, we tend to be especially interested in information about people who matter most in our lives: rivals, mates, relatives, partners in social exchange, and high-ranking figures whose behavior can affect us. Given the idea that our interest in gossip “evolved as a way of acquiring fitness-enhancing information, Barkow also suggests that the type of knowledge that we seek should be information that can affect our social standing relative to others.” Therefore, we to find higher interest in negative news about high-status people and potential rivals because we can exploit it. Negative information about those lower than us in status is as useful.

Information Addiction

The second article I have been thinking through comes from an article in a science blog I read called “The Frontal Cortex“. The article was entitled, “Information Addiction.” The author of this article, Jonah Lehrer is a contributing editor at Wired and author of two books, How We Decide and Proust Was a Neuroscientist. He discusses a recent article in Slate, by Emily Yoffe. “It’s an interesting summary of research that seeks to understand the primal human hunger for information, mostly by extending our models of addiction. Why do we constantly check our email on Sunday morning, or refresh Facebook 100 times a day? What makes new facts so rewarding? For the brain, information is just another rewarding stimulus, an excitatory prompt that leads to the release of neurotransmitter.”

Here’s Yoffe:

Berridge has proposed that in some addictions the brain becomes sensitized to the wanting cycle of a particular reward. So addicts become obsessively driven to seek the reward, even as the reward itself becomes progressively less rewarding once obtained. “The dopamine system does not have satiety built into it,” Berridge explains. “And under certain conditions it can lead us to irrational wants, excessive wants we’d be better off without.” So we find ourselves letting one Google search lead to another, while often feeling the information is not vital and knowing we should stop. “As long as you sit there, the consumption renews the appetite,” he explains.

Actually all our electronic communication devices–e-mail, Facebook feeds, texts, Twitter–are feeding the same drive as our searches. Since we’re restless, easily bored creatures, our gadgets give us in abundance qualities the seeking/wanting system finds particularly exciting. Novelty is one. Panksepp says the dopamine system is activated by finding something unexpected or by the anticipation of something new. If the rewards come unpredictably–as e-mail, texts, updates do–we get even more carried away. No wonder we call it a “CrackBerry.”

Lehrer continues. “The brain, as we all know, is not an indiscriminate curiosity machine. Most people don’t want to know more about quantum mechanics, or the actual details of health care reform, or what’s happening in the Afghanistan presidential campaign. In other words, our craving for news tends towards the local and the personal – our curiosity is circumscribed.” Lehrer concludes that

our brain cells are finely tuned to want more information about stuff which they already know. In essence, these cells work by constantly striving to reduce their “prediction-error signal,” which is the gap between what these cells expect to happen and what actually occurs. If a monkey has been trained to get a squirt of juice everytime a bell is rung, then these dopaminergic cells quickly learn that the bell predicts the sweet reward. As a result, they want more information about that specific rewarding stimulus. What, for instance, predicts the bell? Maybe the scientist flicks a switch before ringing the bell? Or maybe he scratches his nose? Or maybe he simply enters the room? What numerous experiments have found is that our dopamine neurons aren’t interested in responding to the reward itself – instead, they want to find the first reliable bit of information that predicts the reward. This is why we crave new facts: they are means of updating our old facts, of extending our cognitive models forward in time.

This more nuanced version of information addiction also helps explain why even smart people can be so stubbornly ignorant in the face of reality.

We live in a world that is intrinsically motivated by gossip, particularly negative gossip about people or groups that have some leverage or power over us. It is a way to find an avenue for socialization to the norm or to preserve our position or even elevate it. It gives us something to tear down others with so as to have some kind of power over them. Empowered by gossip, information addiction then drives us to know more and more details so as to be able to have more and more potential power over a situation.

Ironically, when a person or organization handles situations correctly, most people are truly surprised. In the recent signing of Michael Vick by the Philadelphia Eagles, most people were totally surprised, even the media. There were no leaks. It was not known until the organization wanted it to be known.

When you start hearing people talk about other people, consider how the discussion is being framed. If the information is negative, control, power or destruction is on the way. When it is positive, it is sharing in the experience of someone. Which scenario has more information gathered? That would be negative gossip.

David has been a systems thinker most of his life. He has started three businesses as well as designed and developed systems and processes in existing organizations. He has a Doctorate in Leadership and has also done additional post-graduate work in communications.

He has also pastored 3 churches and loves to think about, write about and podcast about scripture, theology, and leadership.

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