A few years ago, Stanford University published a study that found the “hidden benefits of gossip”. The research “showed that gossip and ostracism can have very positive effects. They are tools by which groups reform bullies, thwart exploitation of ‘nice people’ and encourage cooperation”. When you think of bullies in Hollywood, who comes to mind – like today, over the last few days? Anyone in particular?
My friend Paolo recommended a book to me recently – Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 2002. He was the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013. Thinking, Fast and Slow made the bestseller lists when it came out in 2011 and was subsequently named one of the best books of that year. In the book’s introduction, Dr Kahneman begins… with the gossip, specifically the value of gossip:
Every author, I suppose, has in mind a setting in which readers of his or her work could benefit from having read it. Mine is the proverbial office watercooler, where opinions are shared and gossip is exchanged. I hope to enrich the vocabulary that people use when they talk about the judgments and choices of others, the company’s new policies, or a colleague’s investment decisions. Why be concerned with gossip? Because it is much easier, as well as far more enjoyable, to identify and label the mistakes of others than to recognize our own. Questioning what we believe and want is difficult at the best of times, and especially difficult when we most need to do it, but we can benefit from the informed opinions of others. Many of us spontaneously anticipate how friends and colleagues will evaluate our choices; the quality and content of these anticipated judgments therefore matters. The expectation of intelligent gossip is a powerful motive for serious self-criticism, more powerful than New Year resolutions to improve one’s decision making at work and at home
One paragraph down from that, gossip comes up again:
The hope for informed gossip is that there are distinctive patterns in the errors people make. Systematic errors are known as biases, and they recur predictably in particular circumstances.
After Dr Kahneman lays out the thesis of the book and the order in which he’ll make his points, the introduction concludes on a note, yet again, about gossip:
I return to the virtues of educating gossip and to what organizations might do to improve the quality of judgments and decisions that are made on their behalf.
And Dr Kahneman comes back to gossip at the end of the book:
We would all like to have a warning bell that rings loudly whenever we are about to make a serious error, but no such bell is available, and cognitive illusions are generally more difficult to recognize than perceptual illusions. The voice of reason may be much fainter than the loud and clear voice of an erroneous intuition, and questioning your intuitions is unpleasant when you face the stress of a big decision. More doubt is the last thing you want when you are in trouble. The upshot is that it is much easier to identify a minefield when you observe others wandering into it than when you are about to do so. Observers are less cognitively busy and more open to information than actors. That was my reason for writing a book that is oriented to critics and gossipers rather than to decision makers.
That line though. I mean, right now, that line could not be more on the nose, even though Dr Kahneman was not actually referring to “actors” by profession:
Observers are less cognitively busy and more open to information than actors.
Who are the observers? Gossips are the observers. And good gossip is the observation. Or as Dr Kahneman calls it – “educating gossip”. This is how he ends the book:
There is a direct link from more precise gossip at the watercooler to better decisions. Decision makers are sometimes better able to imagine the voices of present gossipers and future critics than to hear the hesitant voice of their own doubts. They will make better choices when they trust their critics to be sophisticated and fair, and when they expect their decision to be judged by how it was made, not only by how it turned out.
For years and years, gossip has been demeaned because it has been the domain of women. For years and years in Hollywood, the gossip at the women’s “watercooler” was about Harvey Weinstein. The gossip was exchanged from one woman to another and, as Anne Helen Petersen writes in her new piece for Buzzfeed, the gossip went past the better decision-making that Dr Kahneman was aiming at to become a “means of survival”. Gossip is what women have used to warn and protect each other – in Hollywood and beyond.
Yours in gossip,