Gossip: Of Politics, People and Relationships

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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

“Did you hear that Barack Obama was friends with a left wing radical during the 1970’s?”

“Well,so what! How about this:


Did you hear that John McCain had once been involved in very shady bank dealings?”

Are you someone who loves to engage in gossip? Before you “defensively” say “No” to this question it is important to realize that gossip is a normal activity, according to some researchers,  that has gone on as long as human beings have been around. Gossip seems to play an important role in human activity. In fact, what the news media calls “negative campaigning” during the run for the presidency, is noting more than gossiping on a large public scale. So, why do people gossip?

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Frank T. McAndrew has written an article for Scientific American Mind entitled “The Science of Gossip, Why we can’t Stop ourselves.” It was published October 1, 2008 and can be found online. According to McAndrew, citing his studies as well as those of many other researchers, gossip serves many important social services.

For instance, gossip is a way of erecting clear boundaries between the in group and the out group. Those who are worthy of belonging to the in group meet certain social criteria. Gossip serves the purpose of keeping out those who are not worthy. Furthermore, what better way of punishing someone who belongs to a group but has failed in some way than to gossip about that person.

Gossip always occurs when the person who is the subject of the news is not present. In other words, we gossip “behind the backs of others.” This, then, becomes a form of social control, in which standards of behavior are met and enforced through the process of gossip.
Fictional Case Study:

Here is a fictionalized case study that can easily happen to any family as it did to one I treated several years ago:
“A family of five, husband, wife, three children, lived in a nice suburban community “somewhere in America.” We will call them family “A.” One evening, while all the children were asleep, family A’s friends from across the street, came over to play cards and to enjoy a social evening. We will call them family “B” even though they had no children. During the evening they drank quite a bit of wine.

In a state of inebriation, the wife of family “A” began quietly flirting with the husband of couple “B.”

Several hours later and quite drunk, everyone decided that the evening was over and couple “b” went home. Husband “A” went up to bed while his wife remained downstairs to clean up. Soon after, husband “B” returned and quietly knocked on the door. Wife “A” admitted him and they started knecking. While intercourse did not occur, and “B” returned to his house, he was “caught” by his wife when he returned.

The scenario was not new for couple “B” because their marriage was marked by his having many affairs in the past. The man’s wife decided to sue for divorce. However, feeling vengeful toward’s her former friend, the wife “B” spread rumors around the neighborhood about wife “A” being unfaithful to her husband and children, stealing another’s woman’s husband, and being a “slut.” Knowing who to tell in neighborhood, new spread very fast.

What erupted was an all out war of social isolation and rejection not only for wife “A” but her three children as well. Husband “A” was not spared, either. It goes without saying that this put enormous stress on their marriage and their comfort in the neighborhood. That is why couple “A” sought marriage counseling.

In the end, couple “A” decided to sell their house and move the entire family to a new area within the same state.”

The case demonstrates the power of gossip and social pressure to conform. Failure to conform can result in harsh punishment in the form of rejection and isolation.

McAndrew points out that, in most communities today, people are strangers to one another because of this being a highly mobile society in which there is not much time for people to get to know one another before they move.

He states that this mobility is the reason why gossip about celebrities has become so important. People attach the same type of importance to the things that actors and politicians that they formerly attached to fellow towns people (with the rare exception of the case sited above).

In addition, gossip serves the purpose of uniting a community against what is perceived as a common enemy. Whether that enemy is a neighbor, as seen with couple “A” or some celebrity, everyone joins in the discussion. That discussion is part of the cement that binds some people together.


With regard to election time, gossip, in the form of negative campaigning, is used to attempt to shape public opinion. Therefore, the republicans attempt to portray Obama as a man who was once a “left wing radical” while democrats strike back by attempting to portray McCain as a man with an unethical past.

In using these “smear tactics” each political party is trying to let the public know that their candidate is fully trustworthy while the opponent is someone who is highly suspicious.

While none of us likes this very much, it seems to really succeed, especially for those who are best at casting doubt on the integrity of the rival candidate. For the rest of us all of this become a way for us to succeed in the process of relating to friends and strangers in friendly discourse.

McAndrew concludes that, if we find ourselves engaging in gossip we should not feel too bad because it has always been such a natural part of human history.

Do you agree with that point of view? I have my doubts. Just one example of the harm that I believe gossip can do is teenagers posting gossip about fellow school students on their blogs. There have been more than a few cases of the victims of this nasty gossip becoming so depressed and anxious that they have attempted suicide.

To my mind, the fact that human beings have a long history of doing something does not make it right. After all, we have a long history of making war. Does that make war right, especially in the world today?

Your opinions and comments are encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

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