Get this: gossip is useful. Researchers at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands have found that gossip triggers self-reflection, helping the listener improve behavior and identify threats.

In experiments designed to measure the effects of gossip, college students either recalled real gossip or role-played as sales reps hearing gossip about fictional co-workers. Hearing positive gossip about others prompted a desire for self-improvement. Negative gossip boosted listeners' egos but also put them on guard—it would be only too easy to become one of the disgraced.

The effects of negative gossip were stronger for women than for men and led to heightened alertness and self-protection concerns. Yet men who heard positive gossip about others experienced more fear than women, apparently because they worried they would not measure up.

“Hearing gossip helps people evaluate themselves more accurately in comparison to others,” says psychologist Elena Martinescu, lead author of the study. She notes that although gossip can sometimes be malicious, most of it is shared in good faith: “Contrary to lay perceptions, gossip has an essential role in helping us know ourselves and adapt to our world.”