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The Latest Word on Gossip; It’s Often Nasty, Rarely Rebutted

October 4, 1991

NEW YORK (AP) _ Have you heard what they’re saying about gossip?

One reason it’s so nasty, according to a study, is that once somebody in a group criticizes a person who isn’t there, the conversation tends to encourage further sniping while limiting the chance to challenge the criticism.

The study suggests that to stop the criticism, ″you’ve got to jump in real quickly″ by challenging the first disparaging remark, said study co-author Donna Eder.

″Then it becomes more of a discussion of that person and their pros and cons, rather than a fully negative discussion,″ she said.

Eder, an associate professor of sociology at Indiana University in Bloomington, reports the work in the August issue of the American Sociological Review with Janet Enke, a visiting professor of sociology at the University of Cincinnati.

Their study focused on adolescents, who are more prone than adults to criticize people behind their backs, Eder said. But once an initial criticism is made among adults, the structure of gossip probably promotes further disparagement in the same way, she said.

The adolescents studied were white, and Eder said the relevance of the research to other ethnic groups was not clear.

The study is an important contribution that ″definitely adds to our knowledge of gossip and in particular why gossip turns negative,″ said sociologist and gossip researcher Jack Levin of Northeastern University in Boston.

People usually blame negativism in gossip on ″some personality blemish in people who gossip, like the need for revenge,″ Levin said. ″But what these investigators find instead is that the negativism is in the very structure of gossip.″

Levin said the finding pertains only to gossip done in the absence of the target.

Researchers analyzed 16 conversations among 11 groups of middle school students, ages 10 to 14. They focused on ″evaluative″ gossip, in which a positive or negative evaluation of somebody not present was followed by a response from another student.

Most initial evaluations were criticisms, and a key step in the conversations was the first response to the disparaging remark. This was the only time such a remark was challenged, researchers said. If the first response supported the criticism, it appeared to block any further chance for a challenge.

Only four challenges were noted in the 16 conversations.

On the other hand, there was abundant opportunity to join in the sniping as the conversations progressed. Even students who barely knew the target or who had previously appeared to have different viewpoints sometimes jumped on the bandwagon, researchers found.

″Gossip is pretty easy to participate in. You don’t have to know a story that involves this person, you don’t have to have insulting skills,″ Eder said.

People like to join in because it makes them feel part of the group, Eder said. And since the structure of gossip gives only a fleeting chance to disagree with an initial criticism but lots of opportunity to support it, it encourages more criticism, she said.

That might explain why people who really don’t want to put someone down do it anyway, and it may also make the critical opinion seem more widely shared than it actually is, Eder said.

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