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Why do people talk behind your back psychology?

Talking behind someone’s back, also known as gossiping, is a common human behavior that many people engage in at some point. There are various psychological reasons why people feel compelled to talk about others when they are not around.

The need to bond

One of the main reasons people gossip is to bond with others. Sharing intimate information about someone who is not present helps establish trust and closeness in a relationship. When two people gossip, they feel like they are forming an alliance and it brings them closer together.

Gossiping allows people to affirm social connections and feel like they are part of an ‘in group’ that is privy to sensitive information. The mutual gossip also signals that they are close enough to confide in each other about private matters. So gossip helps fulfill the fundamental human need to belong.


Life can get mundane at times. To add some excitement and drama, people may gossip about others’ misfortunes, scandals, embarrassments and secrets. The thrill of sharing juicy information and speculation about others’ lives alleviates boredom and provides entertainment.

Evolutionary psychologists argue that gossiping may be an instinctual behavior inherited from our early ancestors. In hunter-gatherer groups, information about others needed to be shared for survival purposes. Nowadays, this instinct to share information manifests as gossip even if the information is irrelevant.

Jealousy or envy

Gossiping often stems from feelings of jealousy, resentment, or inadequacy. Criticizing and spreading negative information about someone who provokes envy helps the gossiper feel better about themselves and regain a sense of power or superiority.

For example, if someone is envious of a coworker who got promoted, they may try to diminish the coworker by gossiping about how they do not deserve the promotion. By putting the other person down, the gossiper boosts their self-image.


Harshly judging or criticizing others also boosts the gossiper’s ego and self-esteem. Labeling someone as deviant satisfies one’s sense of moral superiority.

When people gossip, they often exaggerate and embellish details to make the story more scandalous. They want to evoke shock, outrage and disgust from the listener. Being able to sit in harsh judgment of others and point out their flaws provides a sense of pride and righteousness.


People who are dealing with their own flaws and shortcomings may try to take the focus off themselves by gossiping. By picking apart others’ imperfections, they deflect negative attention from their own problems and wrongdoings. So gossip can sometimes act as a self-protective strategy when people feel insecure.

Sense of power

Knowing private details about someone else can give the gossiper a sense of power over the person. They feel entitled to sit in judgment and spread information whether it is true or not. Having an impact on someone’s reputation without their knowledge feeds a sense of control.

Moral policing

Some people have a desire to monitor and regulate other people’s behavior. Gossiping about misconduct allows them to highlighting unethical deeds and ostracize wrongdoers through negative social sanctions.

Gossiping serves to police the dominant social order and makes sure people conform to group norms, though often gossipers are not authorized to play this role.


According to Freudian theory, projection is a psychological defense mechanism where people attribute their own flaws and aggression onto others to avoid facing up to their own faults. By gossiping about others, they unconsciously project their own undesirable qualities onto them.

Confirmation bias

People who gossip tend to seek out and interpret information about others in a way that conforms to their preexisting perceptions and ideas about them. Even if there is limited real evidence to support their beliefs about someone, they give excessive weight to tiny bits of information that align with their biases.

For example, if someone thinks their neighbor is snobby, and then sees their neighbor ignore someone on the street one day, they interpret it as clear proof of their preconceived notion. Their skewed perspective causes them to gravitate towards and exaggerate details that fit their narrative.

Lack of empathy

Some chronic gossipers truly struggle with cognitive empathy and Theory of Mind – the ability to understand others’ mental states and motivations. They are unable to put themselves in someone else’s shoes so they assume the worst of others and impute negative motivations behind innocuous behaviors. Their own lack of empathy causes them to judge others in an uncharitable way.


People who feel insecure try to bring others down to their level out of jealousy. For example, someone who is unhappy with their appearance may gossip about a good-looking acquaintance’s looks to cut them down to size. Focusing on others’ flaws provides momentary relief from their own insecurities.

Desire for revenge

Being hurt or rejected by someone often triggers retaliatory gossip and relational aggression. Since direct confrontation would be socially unacceptable, people try to undermine their enemies by maliciously spreading negative information about them behind their backs.

Relational aggression

Some people, especially adolescents, use gossip as a weapon to deliberately harm their rivals. Spreading damaging rumors and airing out secrets ruins reputations and isolates victims from the wider group. For people with vindictive, competitive personalities, gossiping provides the means to dominate and manipulate the social hierarchy.

Lack of trust

People who have been hurt and victimized tend to struggle with trusting others. As a self-protective mechanism, they gossip about acquaintances’ private matters before those individuals get a chance to betray or hurt them. Preemptive gossip helps them feel in control of the potential rejection.

Thrill of deception

For some manipulative individuals, the taboo nature of gossip is exciting. Spying, uncovering secrets, whispering about private affairs – these acts give them an adrenaline rush and sense of power. The ability to deceive and operate under the radar satisfies their appetite for risk and mischief.

Lack of discretion

Many people gossip simply because they lack appropriate social filters and discretion. They impulsively blurt out anything they know without considering how it could impact others. Bigmouths who cannot keep juicy information to themselves fuel gossip networks. Their loose lips reveal intimate details that get passed along in the rumor mill.

Diffusion of responsibility

When multiple people are gossiping, they feel less personally accountable for the harm it may cause. The responsibility to keep quiet feels “diffused” since so many others are also talking. So people are more likely to disclose secrets and details about someone when other people egg them on. Mob mentality takes over.


People engage in gossip for a wide range of complex motivations, both conscious and unconscious. While gossip may seem frivolous on the surface, it often serves deeper psychological needs like bonding, moral judgment, ego defense, jealousy, insecurity, control, and social status. Understanding the root causes can help us have empathy for chronic gossipers while also setting healthy boundaries around what personal information we share. After all, if no one responded to gossip, the rumors would fail to spread. We all play a role in discouraging unethical gossip simply by tuning it out.

Factors that Influence Gossip

While gossiping serves various social and psychological functions, there are several key factors that make someone more likely to gossip, including:

Personality Traits

Certain personality types are more prone to gossiping:

  • Narcissism – desire to self-promote by putting others down
  • Psychopathy – lack of empathy, manipulative
  • Machiavellianism – cynical, competitive worldview
  • Neuroticism – prone to jealousy and judgment


Research shows that women gossip more frequently than men, likely because they use gossip to socially bond with others. However, men gossip in typically more aggressive ways.


Gossiping tends to peak during adolescence as teenagers use it to establish social status and cliques. It declines as people mature.


Collectivist cultures tend to have more gossip than individualistic ones. Tight-knit communities gossip more to enforce conformity to norms.

Personality Factor Influence on Gossip
Narcissism Narcissists self-promote by putting down others
Psychopathy Lack of empathy enables manipulation via gossip
Machiavellianism Cynical worldview sees gossip as tool for personal gain
Neuroticism Prone to judgment, jealousy fuels gossip

Situational Factors

Beyond inherent personality traits, situational factors also contribute to gossip:

  • Boredom – Gossip alleviates boredom in mundane environments like offices
  • Anonymity – Online anonymity emboldens people to gossip more aggressively
  • Competitive Environments – Fosters gossip as people jockey for status
  • Lack of Consequences – Gossip flourishes when there are no consequences for divulging secrets

Effects of Being Gossiped About

Being on the receiving end of gossip can take a psychological toll:

Social isolation

As gossip often spreads behind someone’s back, they are socially excluded from the rumor mill yet still suffer from its effects. Victims can become ostracized from the wider group.

Reputational damage

Unflattering gossip, whether true or fabricated, can ruin reputations. This is especially detrimental in tight-knit organizations like offices or schools.


Knowing you are being talked about negatively can create intense self-consciousness and paranoia in social situations as you wonder who knows the gossip.

Loss of control

Gossip denies victims the chance to respond to accusations and defend themselves. The lack of control over the narrative is disempowering.

Stress and anxiety

Being targeted by gossip causes significant stress as victims worry about the fallout. Prolonged anxiety over gossip can damage both mental and physical health.

Self-esteem issues

When subjected to regular negative gossip, victims can internalize the criticism and start to believe they are flawed or unworthy, leading to self-esteem problems.


In severe cases, ongoing gossip can contribute to symptoms of depression, especially if the victim already has mental health vulnerabilities.

Effect of Being Gossiped About Description
Social isolation Victim becomes ostracized from wider social group
Reputational damage Gossip can ruin victim’s reputation, even if untrue
Self-consciousness Victim feels paranoid wondering who knows gossip
Loss of control Inability to respond to gossip is disempowering
Stress and anxiety Worry about gossip fallout causes significant distress
Self-esteem issues Internalizing gossip can damage self-worth
Depression Prolonged gossip can worsen mental health

How to Cope with Being Gossiped About

If you discover you are the subject of gossip, here are some healthy ways to cope:

  • Avoid obsessing – Dwelling on gossip fuels anxiety. Focus your energy elsewhere.
  • Objectively evaluate if there are any merits to the gossip that you could learn from.
  • Speak directly to the source of gossip if appropriate to clear up misunderstandings.
  • Open up to trusted friends who can offer a sympathetic ear and reassurance.
  • Limit contact with toxic gossips to minimize exposure to rumors.
  • Document evidence like screenshots if the gossip is libelous.
  • Practice self-care through healthy outlets like exercise, hobbies, and relaxation.
  • Seek counseling if you are experiencing severe distress over being targeted.

Remember, gossip says more about the gossiper than you. Have compassion for their motivations, but don’t internalize their words.

Strategies to Discourage Gossip in Groups

Gossip thrives when it goes unchecked in social and professional environments. Here are some tips for curbing and discouraging gossip:

  • Model the desired behavior by refusing to participate in gossip yourself.
  • Note disapproval of unethical gossip by walking away or changing the subject.
  • Intervene directly if gossip is harmful by saying “That seems inappropriate to discuss.”
  • Appeal to people’s empathy – how would they feel if gossip targeted them?
  • Remind team about relevant confidentiality policies regarding private information.
  • Praise those who demonstrate discretion rather than gossiping.
  • Cultivate team bonding so people do not need to gossip to connect.
  • Offer alternative topics so gossip is not the main entertainment.
  • Make expectations clear that malicious gossip will have consequences.

While gossip will likely never disappear entirely, a culture of transparency, trust and empathy can go a long way in minimizing unethical rumor-spreading. We all have a role to play in discouraging gossip and the damage it can cause.