Everybody Gossips (and That’s a Good Thing): A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast

(Photo:  R/DV/RS)

(Photo: R/DV/RS)

Our latest podcast is called “Everybody Gossips (and That’s a Good Thing).” (You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript; it includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.) 

In the show, Stephen Dubner talks about what gossip is, or isn’t; about the characteristics of the people who produce and consume gossip; and about the functions of gossip, good and bad. You’ll hear from our usual assortment of professors and theorists but also from TV/movie star Adrian Grenier (talking about what it’s like to be the subject of gossip) and Nick Denton, the publisher of Gawker (whose tagline is “Today’s gossip is tomorrow’s news”).

The episode begins with Tom Corley, a CPA and the author of Rich Habits – The Daily Success Habits of Wealthy Individuals. Corley spent five years surveying rich and poor people about their daily habits. Here’s what he claims to have found about gossip: 

CORLEY: Six percent of the wealthy gossip, compare that to 79 percent of the poor who gossip. This is one of those habits that really sticks out like that Grand Canyon of differences that I saw. This is one that really sends that message home that wealthy people and poor people do certain things differently on a daily basis. 

Next, Dubner visits Gawker Media headquarters, where we find that Denton, unsurprisingly, is staunchly pro-gossip. But he thinks Corley’s premise is entirely wrong: 

DENTON: [This] is simply a matter of class prejudice. It’s simply a matter of saying the things that [poor people] talk about, the people that they talk about aren’t important. It doesn’t meet the standard or news so let’s call it gossip. It’s just fishwives; it’s fishwives chattering about their husbands or some infidelity. There’s no difference between that and power gossip, and money gossip, except that the people who decide what is news and what is gossip are the privileged people who look down on lower class. 

You’ll also hear from Adrian Chen and Caity Weaver. Chen used to write for Gawker; Weaver still does. Weaver tells us about one of the more salacious gossip posts she wrote about a certain TV star’s anatomy. It got almost 1 million page views. 

Jenny Cole, a psychology lecturer at Staffordshire University, tells us how gossip makes the gossiper feel. And Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist at Wharton (and an author) talks about why he gossips.  

GRANT: But beyond the social lubrication I think there’s another piece that’s quite important, which is gossip is a warning device. 

Rounding out the episode: Steve Levitt on the juiciest economics gossip he can come up with; Nicholas DiFonzo, a professor of psychology at the Rochester Institute of Technology, who studies rumor; Stephanie Kelley, on gossip in wartime; and, rounding out the show, Adrian Grenier, currently shooting a film version of Entourage, tells us how gossip can be valuable if you’re willing to listen to it.

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  1. Dynise Basore-Ranfagni says:

    The premise is complete bull. I have worked in high end restaurants for years and can tell you first hand that the rich and powerful gossip just as much (if not more) than the average Joe. We had to sign NDAs because of all the stuff we overheard…it is also true that men gossip as much as women, subject matter varies, but gossip is gossip.

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  2. big al says:

    i was impressed by adrian grenier’s thoughtfulness about life as a performer and the celebrity gossip that goes along with it. you just don’t hear that kind of approach to life very often. thanks adrian and thanks freakonomics.

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  3. Kallikanzarid says:

    So gossip is good for the community, but people feel bad spreading it. Is gossip then a form of “pure” altruism?

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  4. Steve Ceebalt says:

    One thing puzzles me: People feel bad for saying POSITIVE things about others behind their backs, if they know the other person. It seems all incentives would align in FAVOR of saying nice things about our friends, peers, colleagues, bosses….seems like this would feed a virtuous feedback loop that would reflect well on us in the ears / eyes of the immediate listener and every subsequent recipient of our verbal generosity. So why would I ever feel bad for saying something nice behind someone’s back?

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  5. Chris says:

    I ran across this and thought it gave some interesting context to gossip.
    http://www.onthemedia.org/story/gossip-algorithm/

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  6. LJ says:

    I just had a gossip session with my coworkers about, no joke–the water cooler. For some reason, unknown to most of us, it’s been moved, and it’s disrupting our equilibrium. Lots of paranoid energy expended. I sought refuge in the headphones.

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  7. Bryce says:

    I loved the intro, and thought the Tom Corley book was super fascinating. I will definitely check that book out. However, I thought the rest of the episode was a let-down. I was expecting to dig into the details of the the habits of the rich vs the poor. I was preparing myself to audit my habits. But the gossip info was boring IMO.

    I love the podcast generally, and suggest doing an deep dive episode on the “wealth-making” habits. Do interviews with the rich, see who breaks or conforms to the mold. Also it would be interesting to see “rising out of poverty” habits that are indicators of young people that will likely become upwardly mobile. That would be very interesting.

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  8. Adam says:

    Is it just me, or doesn’t “gossip” specifically suggest talking about someone’s personal life? That’s the gossip I don’t like and don’t participate in, but that seems totally different from rumors about soldiers poisoning candy.

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