Faster than the wind, rumours fly north, south, east, and west around the globe, thrilling us to the core.
Why do we enjoy rumours so much, regardless of their veracity? Truth seems the least factor we care about as we wallow in the tingling sensation of what is possibly a false rumour.
It is the drama that is so appealing, versus the truth that is so boring.
Even rumours about celebrities, royals, politicians, movie-stars, total strangers who have no direct influence in our lives, are in reality as close to us as friends and neighbours through media exposure. Any rumour about them tickles our curiosity and we become involved in their scandals, divorces, and relationships as if they were family.
What is this phenomenon to poke our noses into other people’s business? Do we not have lives filled with multiple events to satisfy our need for gossip, rumours, worry and wonder?
Psychologists believe that it is no trivial matter — it is how we arrange our world as social animals. How can that make sense? Gossip was once scorned as an evil act, now it has been elevated as a natural, human, social, psychological activity, essential for our very survival.
Does that speak volumes of the decay of our moral standards as a human race?
Not at all, says Jack Levin in his book Gossip — The Inside Scoop. Gossip helps us discover, transmit, and reinforce the unwritten rules of our society or social group. It teaches members of that group what behaviours are unacceptable. Does that make gossip acceptable?
Why then are we encouraged to indulge in vulgar rhapsodies of this sinister act? Because by nature we are snoops and chatterers, males and females, young and old.
In our primeval days it was important for us to share and exchange information for basic survival. We have nurtured and practised it since the Stone Age. We needed it then; but why would we need it now? It seems gossip is the human equivalent of social grooming and primates, which has shown to stimulate production of endorphins, relieving stress and boosting the immune system.
No wonder we enjoy gossiping. Even teenagers at school, succumb to the seduction of a juicy item and spread it like wildfire.
This theory gives gossip an alluring veneer of respectability, but what about truth?
Rumours are nothing more than a story unverified, spreading from person to person, mouth to mouth, and changes slightly in the process. In time it twists and turns, it is altered, exaggerated, and eventually bears no resemblance to the original story, which in the first place may not have been altogether true.
With the tabloids, social media and even mainstream media lean more towards fiction rather than fact. Truth is no longer of interest. It has been deeply buried underground and even if it surfaces limping and broken, it is too late. We prefer falsehood to truth.
With British royalty flooding the news media nowadays, has anyone ever found out about the truth of Princess Diana’s tragic death? Was it a conspiracy? An accident? A collision?
Who knows, who cares about the truth? It lies buried with her.
Closer to home, the death of our very popular superstar Soad Hosni also remains an enigma. Did she commit suicide? Was she pushed off her balcony in London? Were her upcoming memoirs disturbing to certain parties? Rumours abound — truth concealed.
Rumour is slightly different from gossip, though they are often interchangeable.
Rumours are unverified pieces of information, often involving speculation. It is unknown if the original information is true, but eventually is distorted after being told and retold. Generally speaking, it is usually not harmful.
Gossip on the other hand, no matter what psychologists say, always causes pain, humiliation and involves details that are shocking, personal, scandalous, and takes place behind the person’s back. It usually involves talk not heard in public, only in whispers.
Apart from primate behavior and endorphins, what are some reasons that urge us to gossip, even about close ones? Some of the researchers’ answers sound credible.
We often gossip to get attention, to get revenge, to be in control, to appeal to others, to be accepted. You create drama and excitement in a life already boring.
We are still reeling from the misinformation, rumours, fabrications that surrounded the coronavirus. Its guru, Carlo Fauci, changed his mind daily about protocols, lockdowns, vaccines, masks, shutdown of schools and businesses, while a frightened public was desperately changing courses.
Until 2 October, 6,550,414 coronavirus deaths were recorded, while Fauci’s worth increased by $5 million during that period. He retires quietly in December 2022.
Chinese biochemist ans explorer Jiamu Peng, who disappeared in June 1980 at age 55, had examined the effect of gossip on the brain. He discovered it causes more activity in the pre-frontal cortex, which helps us navigate complex social behaviour. Moreover, the reward centre of the brain (caudate nucleus) activated excessively in response to gossip about celebrities.
Salacious news about celebrities sells, ask social media.
We are hardwired for connection and bonding. Gossip provides both.
Despite the fact that a false rumour destroys lives, wrecks homes, and breaks hearts, it has its rewards — it makes us happy.
Talking negatively about others is enjoyable. It gives us a sense of power, makes us feel good about ourselves.
If you have something good to say about others, hold it.
Choose to be happy.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 6 October, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.