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Your Brain on Gossip

I was reading the news the other day and came across something interesting. Apparently, hearing negative gossip about people gives us pleasure. The journal “Social Neuroscience” published a study this past January showing when we hear either naughty celebrity gossip, or naughty gossip about friends, our brains light up like a Christmas tree in the area known as the caudate nucleus. And what exactly is the caudate nucleus responsible for? Pleasure.

That study also concluded hearing scandalous gossip about a good friend activates another part of our brains which is responsible for self-control. This suggests we often try to hide our “pleasure” in hearing anything salacious about our neighbors.

So, we hear gossip and know that we shouldn’t show pleasure. That should tell us something. And what about the person telling us the gossip?

Giving pleasure should be good for the giver, right? Well, not in this case. If you’re the one actually spreading the gossip, it’s not pretty.

I also read this: Dr. Howard Forman, an attending psychiatrist in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Montefiore Medical Center tells us this about gossipers: “People won’t be comfortable around you. They won’t trust you. They won’t want you as part of the team.” Ouch.

Forman also says this: “Salacious enjoyment is very short-lived.” He goes on to say, “Is 10 minutes of pleasure worth 10 weeks of misery? People may look at you as a great source of gossip, but not as a great human being.” Double ouch.

As I read all this, I was thinking two things. First, I agreed with it. And second, how can this information help me as I raise my two tween-aged kids.

And this is what I concluded (let me know if you agree). When we understand something – how anything works – we can better manage it. We can control how we respond to it. Learning about anything makes it less scary. Taking away the element of the unknown gives us confidence. It empowers us.

So, last night at dinner my husband and me spoke with our kids about the study on gossip. We told them about how your brain positively responds to negative gossip by sending you a signal of pleasure and about the “guilty pleasure” one experiences.

You wouldn’t believe the conversation we had. It was awesome.

There was a no-holds-bar conversation surrounding gossip. We talked about how awful it is to hear not-so-nice gossip about yourself (you always inevitably do hear it), and about how you end up not trusting the one who spreads gossip (“If they’re talking about that person, what are they saying about me?”)! We covered it all, including all those “gossip” magazines you see when you walk into your local grocery store.

By the time dessert was served, guess what? There was this entirely new understanding about negative gossip with our kids. It just wasn’t their parents laying down the law about not engaging in negative gossip, it was the four of us talking together about it in a way that made sense to them. They understood it. And they were active participants in the uncovering of what it means to negatively speak about another.

Here’s the really hard part, though. Try as we do, we all, at some point, engage in gossip. We may not be the one telling it, but we inevitably find ourselves in situations where we hear it, read it, or watch it (Housewives of Beverly Hills, anyone?). Gossip is everywhere. So, it’s just not teaching your kids about what happens to their brains on gossip, you have to teach your kids how to do nothing and say nothing in a situation where they won’t want to feel like an outsider. It’s this: teaching our kids that not engaging in naughty gossip is actually cool. But how?

For our family, that lesson starts at home. Whether it’s the television shows we choose to watch, the magazines we choose to buy (or not to buy), the news we read, the phone conversations we are having at home (or in the car!), it’s being consciously aware our kids not only see and hear our choices, our kids repeat them. As parents, our reaction to negative gossip is exactly how we can expect our kids to react. As the old saying goes, “Monkey See, Monkey Do.” Will we make mistakes along with way? Definitely. But even with our mess-ups, it’s an opportunity to speak with our kids about that too. And probably an even more powerful one.

So, what’s my take-away? When you arm your kids with the truth about anything – even negative gossip – they are able to make better decisions when confronted with it. Knowing your brain will tell you what you are hearing is pleasurable, when really, it’s not, gives our kids the power to choose to find real pleasure in other things, things that promote love, kindness and happiness. And knowing you can still be cool for not engaging in it? Well, that’s just hitting a parenting home-run.