Gossip as a Vehicle for Value Comparison: The Department of Social Norms and Social Bonding through Moral Judgment

Hom, Holly Doy Wah, Department of Psychology, University of Virginia
Haidt, Jon, Department of Psychology, University of Virginia

While it is inarguably a ubiquitous social phenomenon, gossip has received relatively little attention from empirical researchers. Theorists have long argued that gossip plays a special role in facilitating social bonds between people and helps to maintain and enforce social norms in society, but these claims remain unverified. The primary goal of the proposed research was to better understand the nature of gossip. What is gossip exactly? What do people talk about? Why do we care so much about the private lives of others? Three studies were designed to address these issues employing a variety of methods: questionnaire, diary study, laboratory (experimental) design. Study 1 attempted to identify the defining characteristics of gossip that distinguish it from other types of talk. Results found that gossip is most prototypical when: the target is not present, the talk is negative in evaluative tone, centers on a moral topic, deals with familiar targets, and is idle. Study 2 addresses basic questions about gossip (who says what about whom?) by having participants keep detailed records of their conversations in a week-long diary study. Results indicated that people experience four different categories of feelings when engaging in talk about others. Among the four categories, experiential differences were found between men/women, people who told/heard the talk, and those who engaged in low/high gossip. Study 3 tests empirically the claims made by theorists that gossip facilitates social bonding and enforces social norms to the extent that gossip partners' moral worldviews overlap. Morality and freshness level were manipulated in order to present gossip of varying levels of prototypicality. Very little support was found in Social Functions of Gossip ii support of the hypotheses. Findings are discussed in the context of limitations of the study design, and suggestions are made for the direction of future research.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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