Nobody likes a gossip queen, or do they? The hand-cupped whispers into your friend’s ears, the peering eyes scanning the room to see if anyone is watching the exchange of information, and the gasping, wide-eyed reactions of the listener are all tell-tale signs you’re involved in gossip. There’s no need to feel ashamed; nearly everyone gossips. It just depends if it’s positive or negative, because researchers have found gossip has the power to improve or threaten a person’s wellbeing.

Researchers from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands studied how gossip influences the listener. They asked their participants to recall positive or negative gossip about another person. Participants’ self-improvement, self-promotion, and self-protection values were then measured to see how people handled the hearsay. Despite the destruction gossip and rumors can breed, hearing gossip can help an individual grow into a better person, the researchers found. Their study appears in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

"For example, hearing positive stories about others may be informative because they suggest ways to improve oneself," the study’s lead researcher Elena Martinescu, said in a press release. "Hearing negative gossip may be flattering because it suggests that others (the gossip target) may function less well than we do. However, negative gossip may also be threatening to the self because it suggests a malign social environment in which one may easily fall victim to negative treatments."

Learning lessons from the grapevine isn’t easy, and some recipients walk away feeling defensive, threatened, anxious, and develop a sense of fearful paranoia that someone will start talking about them. In the study, when a recipient heard positive gossip, they used it to self-reflect, grow, and improve upon their actions. However, when a recipient heard negative gossip, not only did they become more defensive, they also experienced fear and anxiety that they could become the next target topic.

While we're listening to gossip, whether it's good or bad, we're taking notes. We interpret notes and use them to compare and reflect on our own actions. Researchers suggested instead of trying to cut gossip out of our lives, we should instead try to receive it with a conscience ear. The gossiper should also be highly aware of the power they have to improve or put down their listeners.

Teenage girls are the biggest culprits of gossip, and if the negative behavior isn’t capped, they’ll continue to grow into adult bullies. When we think of bullying, it’s usually wedgies and taunting on the playground. But girls take on a different form because of how they socialize, and the gossip that’s spread can really morph a child into being a more secure, socially improved person, or a frightfully walled-up individual.

"Women who receive negative gossip experience higher self-protection concerns possibly because they believe they might experience a similar fate as the person being the target of the gossip, while men who receive positive gossip experience higher fear, perhaps because upward social comparisons with competitors are threatening," Martinescu said.

Source: Martinescu E, Jansen O, and Nijstad BA. Tell Me the Gossip: The Self-Evaluative Function of Receiving Gossip About Others.Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 2014.