Learn the Psychology Behind Gossip and Rumors

Gossip and rumors spread false or incomplete information. They can be harmful, but they also entertain and unite us. We'll tell you more about this here!
Learn the Psychology Behind Gossip and Rumors
Elena Sanz

Written and verified by the psychologist Elena Sanz.

Last update: 11 August, 2022

Gossip and rumors permeate our daily lives. From dubious news we read on social networks to conversations with friends in which we talk about third parties, these types of interactions play an important role in our social lives.

However, their effect can be both positive and negative. That’s why it’s useful to know the psychology behind these dynamics so that we don’t get too carried away by them.

It’s easy to realize that some people are more likely to share and spread rumors than others, but we all participate to some degree. Sometimes this gossip is neutral or even positive, and its sole purpose is to entertain us and share information.

However, in other cases, it’s negative and malicious. Gossip is spread for a very specific purpose. But why does it interest us so much? We’ll explore the answer to this question in this article.

The psychology behind gossip and rumors

If we’re going to talk about the psychology of rumors, it’s inevitable to mention the work of Allport and Postman. These prestigious psychologists defined rumor and explained the keys to its social propagation. Thus, rumor is understood as a statement or proposition that is broadcast as true, without evidence to support it that’s passed from person to person.

This transmission occurs mainly orally, although the advent of social networks has created a new paradigm in this regard, and rumors now also spread via viral content.

However, not any information becomes a rumor. For it to do so, certain conditions must be met. On the one hand, it must be relevant information that’s considered important for a particular community because of its repercussions or because it alludes to some of the most deeply rooted principles and values of that group.

Thus, a rumor that a massive layoff is going to take place in a company spreads much more easily than a rumor that the color of the company walls is going to be changed. Similarly, gossip about infidelity spreads quickly because it goes against one of the moral pillars of society.

Another condition that must be met is that the information must be ambiguous and incomplete. By not offering all the necessary details or evidence, it invites imagination, suspicion, and fabrication. It makes people want to fill in the gaps with their own contributions.

Gossip and rumos at the office
In a work group, the most relevant rumors are not the same as in another social group. Each environment has its own dynamics around gossip.

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How do gossip and rumors spread?

Once we have information that meets the above conditions, there’s a whole process that favors its rapid propagation. The people who receive it treat that data in a certain way that leads to that information spreading more and more.

They do it through three basic laws:

  1. The law of reduction: Gossip and rumors become shorter and shorter. The story is reduced to focus on the most interesting or juicy details.
  2. The law of accentuation: Every time a person tells the rumor, he or she tends to exaggerate it, emphasizing the most attention-catching elements and making the rumor even more spectacular. This is because he or she has also perceived and retained the most flashy information in his or her memory.
  3. The law of assimilation: This explains how each person reorganizes the content according to their interests and ideologies, giving it one form or another when interpreting and transmitting it.

Thus, we see that information mutates as it spreads and does not remain static. Because of this, gossip and rumors constitute, false or incomplete information that isn’t verified and undergoes a whole process of transformation through word of mouth.

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What is the function of rumors and how do they impact us?

Gossip and rumors have been part of human socialization since ancient times. Even today, they still form a large part of our daily conversations.

The exchange of social information is a basic pillar in interactions. However, far from what you might think, gossip is not necessarily negative.

In fact, on most occasions, the information shared is neutral. For example, we can talk about how much a person likes music.

On other occasions, it’s even positive. For example, when we mention favorable or successful events that have happened in someone else’s life. However, even when they are negative, rumors serve several functions:

  • On the one hand, they favor socialization and allow the creation of networks between people. In small groups, they are signs of trust and emotional closeness. If we speak on a global level, they allow us to engage in discussions about social issues that shape our values and culture.
  • On the other hand, they exert a social regulatory role. By talking to others about others, about their actions and consequences, we learn from their experience and understand what is socially acceptable and what is not.
Gossip and rumors between women
The passing of information between people encourages the shifting of details and the exaggeration of pieces of gossip.

Rumors are not always negative, but they require caution

Gossip and rumors are not as negative as we sometimes perceive them to be. However, engaging in spreading (or believing) false news, hoaxes and damaging information about others can be very harmful.

Let’s try to be critical, to go directly to the sources, and not to cooperate in exchanges of negative information that may harm us or others.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Allport, G. W., & Postman, L. (1947). The psychology of rumor. Henry Holt.
  • Baumeister, R. F., Zhang, L., & Vohs, K. D. (2004). Gossip as cultural learning. Review of general psychology8(2), 111-121.
  • Dunbar, R. I., Marriott, A., & Duncan, N. D. (1997). Human conversational behavior. Human nature8(3), 231-246.
  • Dunbar, R. I. (2004). Gossip in evolutionary perspective. Review of general psychology8(2), 100-110.
  • Robbins, M. L., & Karan, A. (2020). Who gossips and how in everyday life?. Social Psychological and Personality Science11(2), 185-195.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.