New research confirms what the loose-lipped amongst us already knew: Gossiping is good for you. Scientists from the University of Pavia have discovered that the brain releases significantly greater proportions of the hormone oxytocin when we gossip than when we engage in other forms of conversation. Oxytocin is often described as the pleasure hormone: it's released when we're aroused, during and after sex, during mother-child bonding, or when we touch each other.
"I work as a psychiatrist," explains lead author Dr Natascia Brondino over the phone to Broadly, "and I noticed that every time my colleagues and I gossiped, we felt closer together. I started to wonder whether there was a biochemical cause for this feeling of closeness."
To test her hypothesis, Brondino recruited 22 female students from a local university and randomly assigned them to one of two groups. The first group—prompted by an actress who steered the conversation—gossiped about a recent unplanned pregnancy on campus. The second, non-gossip group heard an actress tell an emotional personal story about how a sporting injury meant she might never be able to play sports again. Additionally, both groups took part in a control exercise, answering neutral questions about their courses and their reasons for taking part in the study.
I ask Brondino why they only used female test subjects. "Oxytocin can be very influenced by sexual arousal," she responds, "so we didn't want men and women taking part in the study to become aroused by each other and influence the findings."
After all three conversations, the subjects were tested using a saliva swab for their oxytocin and cortisol levels. While cortisol levels—the body's primary stress hormone—decreased equally amongst the gossip and non-gossip group, oxytocin levels were significantly higher in the group that gossiped. Brondino believes her findings attest to the vital important of gossip in human social interaction.
It serves a useful social function," she argues. "It brings people closer together than they would be if they were talking about some impersonal topic. And it can help us figure out who to trust, because we can hear information about people we don't know from trusted sources."
In gossip we set moral boundaries. However, as with all judgments about others, gossip can go wrong and turn into self-righteousness and cause unwarranted harm. Sometimes the talk is malicious and comes from something less than a clean conscience. The problem arises when gossip smears another’s reputation unfairly. Once the harm is done it is sometimes impossible to set right.
“And your speech is like the feathers scattered on the wind. Once your words have left your lips, they, too, cannot be gathered again. From now on, be careful of what you say.”