Everybody Gossips (and That’s a Good Thing) (Ep. 152)

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(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.


First off, great episode! Second, I really enjoyed the music at the end of the episode. Could you tell me what the name of the song is and the artist if possible?

Steve Cebalt

An instant Freakonomics Classic. Loved it. It takes on a universal topic and challenges a lot of entrenched "conventional wisdom," complete with contrasting views. While there will probably always be gold in gossip, for those of us who prefer to keep our mouths shut, there is also a vigorous market in confidentiality. CPAs, bankers, lawyers, doctors, psychiatrists, PR practitioners -- all of these professionals trade in "trust and confidence." It's hard for me to tell a good attorney from a bad one based only on credentials, but if I sensed that mine was a gossiper, I'd look elsewhere for my criminal defense counsel. The ability to keep secrets is the hallmark of these professionals -- the very thing that separates good ones from the rest, because trust and confidence are things consumers can readily see and judge.


Trust and confidence are 'hallmarks'of these professions because they are required by law. So their confidentiality is not what defines their abilities but rather what allows them to be licensed in their professions. But that only applies to certain professional information. Certainly excellent lawyers and doctors gossip just as much as the rest of us - about infidelity or a fellow colleagues spouse.


Here's the Grand Canyon of difference between rich people and poor people: rich people got pulled out of the "right" vagina.

It's the main thing I hate about the Chicago School of Economics: rich white men trying to tell poor women and minorities that they should be more like rich white men.

Institutional racism, the glass ceiling, malnutrition, poor inner-city schools, these are the real causes of poverty, not some frivolous, flim-flam victim blaming that the Chicago School likes to perpetrate.

Enter your name...

I'm not an expert, but as I understand it, the Chicago School of Economics is mostly about things like transaction costs and price theory, not about how to get rich.

Chris Sowick

I know this is just a small piece of the episode, but the study comparing rich habits to poor habits seems incredibly suspect considering how ZERO caveats were made about causation. I understand perhaps they were edited out but at least Dubner should have mentioned "now to be clear, this is just correlation not necessarily causation."
I mean, considering the volatility of those statements, that researcher should have been stopping between every sentence to remind us, lest he be mistaken for committing the original sin of researcher, confusing correlation with causation. Putting gossip aside for the moment, all the correlations he discovered are indeed fascinating, but unless you stop and explicitly caveat, you are IMPLYING causation. A few in particular are almost certainly nothing more than the results of being rich. The calories from junk food thing clearly is. People eat junk food because they cannot afford healthy food and many poor neighborhood are what's known as "food deserts," where its physically impossible to find a non-junk food meal without traveling far outside the area. Give poor people an extra 50k a year to live on and the vast majority of them will make significant improvements to their quality of food.

I mean, the way some of these were presented, I wouldn't be surprised if they were followed by the correlations that, "rich people were also found to buy much more Chateau Lafite, play significantly more $1,000 a hand blackjack, and spend far more time on 200 foot yachts than the poor. Its all in my book, Habits That Will Make You Rich--ahem, did I say that? I meant, Habits OF The Rich. Same difference really."

As it played in the podcast, getting up 3 hours before work and reading the trades, was pretty strongly implied to be something that causes success, rather than a luxury afforded by ALREADY HAVING success. While the live-in nanny is making the kids breakfast and getting them off to school, yes you might have some spare time in the morning to work out, check your stocks, and read the Wall Street Journal, but that has a vanishingly small causal link to actually creating success where there is none.
A McDonalds GM can exercise, eat well, read self improvement literature, and wake up at the crack of dawn every morning, and its not going to make them more economically successful. Their quality of life will likely improve, but that's not going to translate in monetary wealth. There is a HUGE chasm of stuff separating the person I just described, and someone making 160k a year with 3 million in liquid assets; and all the stuff in that chasm not mentioned by the study is probably 95% responsible for the difference between the two.

2ndly, the Gawk.er "Publisher" was entirely right in his analysis of that study. How did the study distinguish "gossip" from "news?" How was the data collected, self reporting??? Or did they actually record everything the subjects said for 2 weeks? No one thinks that when they are relaying current events about people that they are gossiping, they are just talking about events that have happened. When I say it, its just informing you about current events, when another person says the exact same thing, its gossip. When I'm tailing about my friend Jerry its not gossip, when that person I don't know is making the same statement about his friend Jerry, well that guy is gossiping about Jerry! This is the problem with self report.



What you are describing are problems the social sciences have always had problems with. Correlation and Causation are frequently confused in all the social fields. The repeat episode recently on the podcast talks about the famous prison experiment which would have been less causation as there were controls but there is the problem of participants giving what they think the researcher wants. And self reporting is not really that reliable either. Perception and reality often differ.

I think what we had in the episode is a difference in naming conventions, not in data. If you define gossip is spreading information about people, then yes news is gossip. But I think most people define gossip as news that focuses on the negative, especially if it really has nothing to do with us or society. Like who is divorcing who in celebrity gossip. If people talked about my son being born, that wouldn't be gossip in most peoples mind if it was born with my wife. If it was with my mistress, that would be gossip. Intent and the atmosphere in which the information is shared is the point, not the information. Intent and atmosphere are hard to measure due to the subjective nature so I have to take any study that says they measured them with a grain of salt.

What I find ironic about your post is saying that the data doesn't show causation but you create a reversal of causation link. You say that the actions of the wealthy aren't what make then wealthy. You can't say that because causation isn't determines, only correlation. Your hypothesis on the direction of the causality is as valid as the reverse, or even another outside cause creating both wealth and the actions the wealthy take. For example, if you are waking up 3 hours before work as a McD GM and exercise, read, and eat well, you have a drive and self motivation that will make you more valuable and help you earn more. I don't know what direction it goes because I can see both ways and correlation doesn't tell me which way it does go.



Hey can you guys set up a soundcloud account? it makes it better to listen in my smartphone, Thanks


That Staples add at the top of your page makes me want to use an ad blocker. Just an FYI. Also, to Staples, I'm not buying products from you because I don't like your ad. Learn.

Sean K.

I like that they started off with Corley and then proceeded to prove his point wrong. I would love to hear a who program on how very wrong Tom Corley's book was.

In the interview he gave his sample size. It was very small, only 361 people. That is less than 1 per 1,000,000 Americans. It was also 1.82:1 rich to poor. Considering that the poor are a larger and more diverse population, a better study would have reversed those number.


Last I checked opinions are not proof. Data and facts are proof. I was the only one without an opinion. Just facts and data. The wealthy do not gossip because gossip damages relationships and this affects their ability to make money. If my sample size was too small then Rasmusen's should be out of business since its sample sizes are not much larger than mine.


I second Chris Sowick's previous comment, and it seems FAR too important of a point to have only one comment so far.

The way the episode was structured resulted in the initial implication that gossip caused wealth, followed by exploration of that idea through interviews, and the ultimate conclusion that gossip was generally a good thing. I acknowledge that Stephen Dubner is fairly well-respected and that it's difficult to conduct controlled experiments in the social sciences, but even in the social sciences, case studies (the interviews) are viewed as the initial exploration of ideas to pursue further (through surveys), and causation can then be learned through controls or advanced statistics--or sometimes just common sense.

For example, the assertion that the poor are poor because they eat worse was appalling. If the episode had then explored that topic in the same manner as this episode, Stephen Dubner would have interviewed doctors to learn about how fast food contributes to health problems that ultimately sap the income of the poor, and he ultimately would have concluded that poor people should eat better because it'll help them make more money. Never mind the points stated previously--that poor people have less access to healthful food, and that healthful foods cost money--which are vital to the interpretations of that survey.

This podcast professes to "explore the hidden side of everything," but this episode failed to live up to that claim. Please, I know Freakonomics is better than this, and it's been far better than this before. Don't stoop to pseudoscience when people rely on this podcast for useful information.


Dynise Basore-Ranfagni

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.

big al

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.


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

Steve Ceebalt

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?


I ran across this and thought it gave some interesting context to gossip.


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.


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.


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.