Gossip: A Form of Workplace Warfare

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

Do you engage in gossip? Have you ever been the target of other peoples’ gossip? Is gossip just harmless socializing?

New research done by Nicole Hess, an evolutionary psychologist at Washington State University in Vancouver, says gossiping can be a form of warfare in which information is used as a weapon that could potentially damage a competitor’s reputation. An effective defense, according to the study, is having friends.

Dr. Hess reports that she instructed 500 subjects to imagine that they were competing for a promotion within a corporation.  She then had them read a list of positive and negative statements, or "gossip," about their rival for the promotion. She then asked them how likely they would be to relay each piece of "gossip" to others in the office.

Hess found that participants tended to spread more of the negative comments when she raised the stakes  by increasing the salary or decreasing the number of promotions available. But, she says, they were less likely to denigrate their competitor when  told their opponent had a friend in the company. In other words, having an ally within the community deters negative gossip. 

According to Hess, the reason that having a friend in the community deters gossip is that your friend will be in the know and may be able to help you use "retaliatory gossip" to stop attacks.

Dr. Hess reports that the sexes were equally willing to use negative gossip to gain an advantage in the competition. She therefore suspects that a tendency to gossip depends more on the situation than on the gender.

However, other research suggests that women do engage in gossip more than men. If this is true it may be due to what Hess describes as women facing more competition within groups as compared to men. Therefore, women "should be more inclined to gossip competitively about group members," according to Hess.

What does not seem clear is why women should face more competition within groups as compared to men?

From my point of view, gossip has never been harmless and, in fact, can and does cause a lot of damage. I have seen many therapy patients over the years who complained bitterly about gossip and how it damaged their reputation. There are those times when gossip seems to me to be a form of scapegoating where the group unites against one person who becomes the target of aggression and hatred. In all, gossip can create a hostile and paranoid atmosphere in a place of work with extremely damaging effects on morale and productivity.

What are your experiences with gossip?

Your comments and questions are encouraged

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

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