Thursday, January 3, 2019

Targets of negative gossip experienced guilt, especially with low core self-evaluations & caused repair intentions; & anger, especially for targets with high reputational concerns, & caused retaliation intentions

Self-Evaluative and Other-Directed Emotional and Behavioral Responses to Gossip About the Self. Elena Martinescu, Onne Janssen and Bernard A. Nijstad. Front. Psychol., Jan 04 2019,

Gossip, or informal talk about others who are not present, is omnipresent in daily interactions. As such, people who are targeted are likely to hear some gossip about themselves, which may have profound implications for their well-being. We investigated the emotions and behavioral intentions of people who hear performance-related gossip about themselves. Based on the affective events theory, we predicted that gossip incidents have strong emotional consequences for their targets and that these emotional responses trigger different behaviors. Two scenario studies (N1 = 226, Mage = 21.76; N2 = 204, Mage = 34.11) and a critical incident study (N = 240, Mage = 37.04) compared targets' responses to positive and negative gossip. Whereas, targets of positive gossip experienced positive self-conscious emotions (e.g., pride), targets of negative gossip experienced negative self-conscious emotions (e.g., guilt), especially when they had low core self-evaluations. In turn, these negative self-conscious emotions predicted repair intentions. Positive gossip also led to positive other-directed emotions (e.g., liking), which predicted intentions to affiliate with the gossiper. Negative gossip, however, also generated other-directed negative emotions (e.g., anger), especially for targets with high reputational concerns, which in turn predicted retaliation intentions against the gossiper. This pattern of emotional reactions to self-relevant gossip was found to be unique and different from emotional reactions to self-relevant feedback. These results show that gossip has self-evaluative and other-directed emotional consequences, which predict how people intend to behaviorally react after hearing gossip about themselves.

These findings help understand target's emotional and behavioral reactions to gossip as functional. Repair behaviors might be an adaptive response to negative gossip, helping targets avoid further deterioration of their self-views and social relationships. Intentions to retaliate against gossipers, who have harmed targets' social capital may also be functional in deterring future reputational attacks. Furthermore, positive gossip confirms valuable attributes or goal accomplishment and serves targets' fundamental need for a positive self-view (Kunda, 1990; Sedikides and Strube, 1997), potentially motivating individuals to strive for future achievements and status (Tracy et al., 2010). Moreover, positive gossip is functional in fostering a social bond between targets and gossipers, who are likely to be perceived as supportive and trustworthy allies.

Our work also clarifies that people have distinct emotional reactions to gossip and feedback about themselves, thereby indicating that the two types of self-relevant information have distinct implications for the targets' self-evaluation and reputation. Negative feedback generated higher self-conscious negative emotions and repair intentions than negative gossip, possibly because formal feedback is communicated for improvement and development purposes and increases one's sense of self-awareness and accountability. In contrast, because negative gossip is spread in one's absence (Foster, 2004) and is not clearly intended to advance performance, it may be more easily discounted by targets, thereby generating lower self-conscious negative emotions and repair intentions. Furthermore, gossip led to higher other-directed negative emotions and to lower other-directed positive emotions than feedback, suggesting that gossip is perceived as more malignant or less benign than formal feedback, possibly because it is communicated behind one's back. These results indicate that gossip is a mechanism that parallels formal communication channels in organizations and regulates group members' behavior and interpersonal relations.

In addition to the hypothesized reactions of gossip targets, the analyses revealed other effects. Consistent across Studies 1 and 3, self-conscious positive emotions predicted retaliation intentions. Positive gossip may enable targets to evaluate themselves as better than others [i.e., hubristic pride, (Tracy et al., 2010)], possibly generating retaliation intentions, because hubristic pride instigates people to establish a reputation of dominance and assert power through aggression (Tracy et al., 2010). However, other-directed positive emotions induced by positive gossip decreased retaliation intentions (Study 3) and increased repair intentions (Studies 1 and 2). Thus, positive gossip also made targets feel included, thereby motivating prosocial and reducing antisocial behaviors. As such, positive gossip generated both retaliation and affiliation intentions by arousing self-conscious and other-directed positive emotions, respectively. Furthermore, negative gossip targets were more likely to affiliate with the gossiper due to negative self-conscious (Studies 2 and 3) and other-directed emotions (Study 3). Targets who feel guilty or ashamed may see gossipers as expert observers of their shortcomings [expert power, (Kurland and Pelled, 2000)] and seek contact to obtain support or advice. In contrast, those who are angry with gossipers may seek future contact to disprove the negative gossip, or to search for retaliation opportunities.


In line with the AET (Weiss and Cropanzano, 1996), our findings have shown that the prosocial (repair and affiliation) and antisocial (retaliation) behaviors of gossip targets are driven by affective processes, and that predispositions (CSE and CR) moderate the affective and behavioral reactions to gossip events. Future research may additionally investigate the role of other cognitive or motivational processes in shaping gossip targets' behavior, or whether gossip about the self may be experienced in a non-affective manner. Furthermore, given the differential effects of gossip vs. feedback found in Study 2, it may be interesting for the AET to distinguish between more formal vs. informal affective events at work. Our results suggest that affective reactions may differ where formal evaluations vs. gossip are concerned, and perhaps similar effects can be expected for other types of (formal vs. informal) communication at work, such as official, written communication compared to rumors.

The positive emotions generated by positive gossip are universally pleasing and can easily co-occur, as was the case in all three studies: targets were simultaneously happy with themselves and with gossipers. However, different association patterns are possible for the negative emotions aroused by negative gossip. On the one hand, gossip targets may exclusively feel negative emotions directed at the gossipers for their harmful gossiping behavior, possibly rejecting their own faults to protect their self-views (Kunda, 1990). On the other hand, targets may feel self-conscious about their shortcomings and blame gossipers for sharing the negative gossip. In Studies 1 and 2, self-conscious and other-directed negative emotions were not correlated when gossip valence was accounted for, but they were positively correlated in Study 3, suggesting that boundary conditions may apply. In Study 3 we indeed showed that the arousal of negative self-conscious and other-directed emotions depends on self-directed (CSE) and other-directed (CR) dispositional factors, respectively. Furthermore, self-conscious and other-directed negative emotions predicted whether gossip targets had prosocial (reparation) or antisocial (retaliation) intentions.