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BY LISA PROFERA MD
There’s something about a bit of juicy gossip that catches our attention. Why does it give us pleasure to talk about others? We, as humans, are social beings. We have been hard-wired for gossip since early evolution.
Social interactions and group dynamics were key to the survival of early man tens of thousands of years ago. Primitive man formed social groups for hunting, foraging, and protection. Who is contributing to the group compared to who is not has been a key dynamic throughout history. Just watch a few episodes of the popular reality show, Survivor, and you’ll see what I mean. At the end of each episode, someone is voted out of the tribe and the flame of their torch (representing life) is symbolically extinguished at the end of tribal council.
Today, we lean into information about others. It pervades through the gamut of media sources we’re exposed to on a daily basis. It exists in the home, the office, the gym, the classroom; it is ubiquitous. A research team at the University of Amsterdam found that 90% of total office conversation qualifies as gossip. Another study conducted at the Georgia Institute of Technology found that gossip made up 15% of office email content.
There is a biochemical reason why we thrive on gossip. The lure of whispering secrets and can be irresistible. Studies have shown that the hormone oxytocin is released from our pituitary gland when we engage in gossip. Measurable increases in salivary levels of oxytocin have been demonstrated in women exposed to a gossip conversation. When the same group of women were engaged in a neutral (non-gossip) conversation the next day, their oxytocin levels were not elevated. The statistically significant difference in oxytocin levels may “represent a potential hormonal correlate of gossip behavior” according to a study published in Psychoneuroendocrinology (March 2017).
You may have heard of oxytocin as “the love hormone” or the “cuddle hormone.” Produced and released by the hypothalamus, this hormone is responsible for a variety of physical and psychological effects. It’s released during intimate contact, infatuation, love, and the bonding between mother and baby (especially during breastfeeding). It modulates social and emotional responses. Oxytocin levels are generally higher in women than in men. Women can be powerful spreaders of gossip, and also be its most vulnerable targets.
“Studies show that women use far more words during the day than men do, and, especially woman-to-woman, those words tend to be personal.” Sharing intimate tidbits of information can bond women together emotionally. Women tend to bond over feelings, men tend to bond over activities and things. Differences in the way men and women communicate translates into differences in gossip style. These feelings of social bonding are cemented in our psyche by the hormone oxytocin.
Feelings embedded in our brains can be construed as positive or negative. Gossip can elevate a person to a position of power, admiration, and respect in the eyes of others. One can feel empathy, envy, or fear of another in a different circumstance. And then there’s the oddly complex feeling of pleasure when hearing of another’s misfortune, known as schadenfreude (a German word meaning “harm-joy”). “A 2011 study by Cikara and colleagues using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) examined schadenfreude among Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees fans, and found that fans showed increased activation in brain areas correlated with self-reported pleasure (ventral striatum or reward center) when observing the rival team experience a negative outcome (e.g., a strikeout). By contrast, fans exhibited increased activation in the anterior cingulate and insula when viewing their own team experience a negative outcome. These deeper areas of the brain are involved with the processing of emotion and problem-solving.
Why do we love to gossip so much? Just blame the love hormone! The lure of “tell me more” is just too hard to resist. Being “in the know” versus being excluded is not only seductive, it is linked to survival in the social group. The next time you are tempted to engage in gossip, think of your Miranda rights — anything you say can and will be used against you. As humans, we are hard-wired for gossip, like it or not.
Lisa Profera MD
Owner and Founder of PROJUVU MD
Aesthetics and Lifestyle Medicine in Ann Arbor, MI
doTERRA Essential Oils Wellness Advocate
BEMER Independent Distributor
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