Sunday Funday: The Social Role of Gossip

The topic of this week’s edition of Sunday Funday–gossip.  To most, gossip is simply idle praddle, but the Freakonomics Radio podcast explains that gossip serves a social function.  

Here is a description of the podcast: 

In the show, Stephen Dubner talks about what gossip is, or isn’t; about the characteristics of the people who produce and consume gossip; and about the functions of gossip, good and bad. You’ll hear from our usual assortment of professors and theorists but also from TV/movie star Adrian Grenier(talking about what it’s like to be the subject of gossip) and Nick Denton, the publisher ofGawker (whose tagline is “Today’s gossip is tomorrow’s news”).

The episode begins with Tom Corley, a CPA and the author of Rich Habits. Corley spent five years surveying rich and poor people about their daily habits. Here’s what he claims to have found about gossip: 

CORLEY: Six percent of the wealthy gossip, compare that to 79 percent of the poor who gossip. This is one of those habits that really sticks out like that Grand Canyon of differences that I saw. This is one that really sends that message home that wealthy people and poor people do certain things differently on a daily basis. 

Next, Dubner visits Gawker Media headquarters, where we find that Denton, unsurprisingly, is staunchly pro-gossip. But he thinks Corley’s premise is entirely wrong: 

DENTON: [This] is simply a matter of class prejudice. It’s simply a matter of saying the things that [poor people] talk about, the people that they talk about aren’t important. It doesn’t meet the standard or news so let’s call it gossip. It’s just fishwives; it’s fishwives chattering about their husbands or some infidelity. There’s no difference between that and power gossip, and money gossip, except that the people who decide what is news and what is gossip are the privileged people who look down on lower class. 

You’ll also hear from Adrian Chen and Caity Weaver. Chen used to write for Gawker; Weaver still does. Weaver tells us about one of the more salacious gossip posts she wrote about a certain TV star’s anatomy. It got almost 1 million page views. 

Jenny Cole, a psychology lecturer at Staffordshire University, tells us how gossip makes the gossiper feel. And Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist at Wharton (and an author) talks about why he gossips.  

GRANT: But beyond the social lubrication I think there’s another piece that’s quite important, which is gossip is a warning device. 

Rounding out the episode: Steve Levitt on the juiciest economics gossip he can come up with; Nicholas DiFonzo, a professor of psychology at the Rochester Institute of Technology, who studies rumor; Stephanie Kelley, on gossip in wartime; and, rounding out the show, Adrian Grenier, currently shooting a film version of Entourage, tells us how gossip can be valuable if you’re willing to listen to it.

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January 26, 2014 · 1:00 pm

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