STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
This story is sure to set tongues a-waggin' (ph). Academic research makes the case in favor of gossip. One study finds that people spend an average of 52 minutes per day talking about other people. And though gossip has a bad reputation as idle, jealous, vindictive, it's not always so bad. Here's NPR's Allison Aubrey.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: If you want to know how much people gossip and what they gossip about, one way to find out is to get them to wear a portable recording device that could capture their every word. That's what researchers did as part of the new study. It included about 500 people. Study author Megan Robbins of the University of California, Riverside says she wanted to know how much of gossip is trash talk and how much is positive. But what she uncovered was kind of surprising.
MEGAN ROBBINS: We actually found that the overwhelming majority of gossip was neutral. So about three-quarters of the gossip that we heard in our sampled conversations was neither positive or negative.
AUBREY: In other words, people just love to talk about other people. But a lot of it is just chatter with no real judgment. Jeremy Cone teaches psychology at Williams College.
JEREMY CONE: We share tons and tons of social information, but it isn't necessarily, you know, salacious or extreme.
AUBREY: Think about your own conversations. A lot of it is just - oh, Judy and Ted went to Florida; Uncle Jimmy had a kidney stone; did you hear Emma got her driver's license?
CONE: Much of that is just simply a kind of documenting of the facts or just sharing information about others.
AUBREY: The study has some other interesting findings, too. Turns out, women and men gossip about the same, and extroverts gossip more than introverts. Now, many people do engage in negative judgmental gossip, but even this can serve a purpose.
ELENA MARTINESCU: I think gossiping can be a very smart thing to do.
AUBREY: That's Elena Martinescu of King's College London. She has studied the influence of gossip in the workplace.
MARTINESCU: It allows people to keep track of what's going on. It allows people to bond and to create social alliances with other people.
AUBREY: From an evolutionary perspective, we are wired to gossip. She says it can help build group cohesion and a sense of cooperation.
MARTINESCU: Because when you gossip, you can keep track of who is contributing and who is giving back to the group and who is being selfish - and by sharing this information with your group members, you can exclude those people who are not good group members or who are social loafers.
AUBREY: In one of Martinescu's own studies, she analyzed what happens when a person learns that they're the one being gossiped about. Turns out, people feel hurt and angry. But it can also motivate them to improve.
MARTINESCU: We found that negative gossip makes people likely to repair the aspects of their behavior that they were criticized for.
AUBREY: So if people gossiped that you always got to work too late, hearing that gossip could nudge you to be on time and trigger a change in your behavior for the better.
Allison Aubrey, NPR News.
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