Secrets, Gossip, and Rumors


Noah Brier has an interesting bit about secrets# in which he quotes Peter Thiel on secrets (I go from Zero to Italian). Thiel uses gossip as an example of silly secrets. Maybe. Yet I like to look a bit more closely to what is behind behaviors.

If you are in the business of behavioral change/impact, you should be interested in understanding how information spreads.

In my research and work on influence over the years, I have come across the ideas of gossip and rumors as two ways people — i.e. social animals — use to connect with each other.

The intent and place they come from vary slightly.

What gossip does

Gossip is based on facts, though they are detached from context. It typically happens as a private conversation; it is now increasingly becoming public thanks to the Internet and the ease of social sharing.

When people engage in gossip, they do so with moral judgment, coming from a point of superiority. An analysis of online conversation that takes into account sentiment would uncover this twist in the tone and terminology. 

Some researchers believe gossip started as a way for early humans to learn about their neighbors and determine who they could trust, making it a necessary tool for survival.

Robin Dunbar, author of Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language, theorizes that gossip works in human societies the same way grooming does in primate societies, but more efficiently. Dunbar goes so far as to theorize that language evolved so that people could gossip and more effectively establish and defend social groups.

People gossip when they wish to:

  • Entertain each other
  • Influence opinion
  • Exchange important information
  • Point out and enforce social rules
  • Learn from others’ mistakes

Having something new to talk about makes the person telling the story interesting. It might be a silly version of the secret in this sense of newness and the appeal of exclusivity for the person spreading gossip.

Rumors may vary

Rumors and gossip have similarly distasteful connotations, however researchers disagree on whether they are the same thing.

Some say gossip and rumor are the same. Others have a more nuanced understanding of what is at the root of each, identifying how rumor is a specific kind of gossip.

How do they differ?

  • Gossip is based on fact; rumors are based on hypotheses
  • Gossip is a tool for maintaining social order; rumor is a tool for explaining things people do not understand
  • Gossip relates something people believe has happened; rumors express what people hope or fear will happen

We live in times of great uncertainty, complexity, and volatility. Should we be surprised that the volume of gossip and (potentially) rumor has gone up? 

Entire cultures are built on motivation and intent — talk and action are downstream consequences and expressions of what people believe.


For those of you who want to learn more, this research# by Ralph L. Rosnow and Eric K. Foster is a good starting point.

[image of Gossip, Norman Rockwell, taken at NR Museum#]


Valeria is an experienced listener. She designs service and product experiences to help businesses rediscover the value of promises and its effect on relationships and culture. She is also frequent speaker at conferences and companies on a variety of topics. Book her to speak here.

Conversation Agent – Valeria Maltoni