Bigg Boss, gossip and survival: The reality show illustrates how talking about others is a powerful social tool

  • Bigg Boss, with its dynamic group interactions, is a minefield of information for behavioural scientists.

  • Some sociologists argue that gossip was an indispensable part of Big Brother, the original UK version of Bigg Boss.

  • This makes Bigg Boss a social experiment in how interactions occur between people who live together, while surviving in a group, and more importantly, as individuals.

Bigg Boss, with its dynamic group interactions, is a minefield of information for behavioural scientists. Besides being instantly meme-able and turning its otherwise unknown participants into celebrities, it should pique the interest of anyone seeking to understand how human beings converse with each other and behave in groups. Contestants are placed in an isolated house with other inmates, while being viewed through a reality TV framework. In this isolated house, they then go on to form relationships that might help them ‘survive’, and not get eliminated as a contender, while simultaneously ensuring that these relations are not viewed as shams by the audience watching them on their television screens.

Sociologists Joanna Thornborrow and Deborah Morris argue that gossip was an indispensable part of Big Brother, the original UK version of Bigg Boss. They contend that contestants need to navigate between building a positive identity for themselves both within the house, which they do by gossiping, and with the viewers as well, who have the power to vote and may consider gossip as negative. These observations are in line with other research about how we function in groups. This makes Bigg Boss a social experiment in how interactions occur between people who live together, while surviving in a group, and more importantly, as individuals.

 Bigg Boss, gossip and survival: The reality show illustrates how talking about others is a powerful social tool

A still from an episode of Bigg Boss Season 11. YouTube screenshot.

The tendency to gossip, while often thought of as insidious, is also an important part of functioning in a group. It helps in fostering and building relationships among those with whom the gossip is shared. For example, if I have reason to believe that the accountant of a small company is engaging in fraud, I might gossip with others in the company about it. This way, if there is actual fraud happening, it might get exposed, and would serve the group well. However, if it turns out to be untrue, the group might still consider me a reliable person who would point out norm violations. In this manner, gossip helps in establishing and reinforcing group membership. Further, it might also boost the popularity of the gossiper, who is considered to have actually helped the group. In the context of Bigg Boss, it might aid the gossiper in eventually winning the show. So as typical nerds, we wanted to check if this is actually true.

We asked a conscientious coder to help us investigate the patterns of gossip in 18 representative episodes of Season 11 of the show, for three of the contestants who were evicted first (Sshivani Durga, Lucinda Nicholas, and Jyoti Kumari), and three of the finalists (Shilpa Shinde, Hina Khan, and Vikas Gupta). We found that those who were evicted did not contribute to conversations that included gossip. On the other hand, the three finalists gossiped more, but were not targets of gossip as much. Further, for instance, most of Khan's conversations were considered positive, that is, her conversations displayed elements of prosociality, benevolence, and were thought of as largely constructive by the rater. Additionally, she was one of the contestants who was hardly ever gossiped about through the show.

We also coded the content and motivations of gossip, and found that Vikas Gupta gossiped mostly about others’ transgressions related to financial standings, achievements, ambition, physical prowess, popularity, and related subjects of status and prestige. Shilpa Shinde and Hina Khan, on the other hand, gossiped more about physical appearance, sexual reputation, inappropriate behaviour of other people, status and prestige. The content of gossip in the Bigg Boss house often included three components: comparison with others, information used to toy with others' reputation, comparisons that made the speaker seem more attractive. Finally, our observations also proved that winners consistently gossiped more than those who were eliminated the earliest.

Salman Khan declaring the winner of Bigg Boss Season 11. YouTube screenshot.

Salman Khan declaring the winner of Bigg Boss Season 11. YouTube screenshot.

If we look at Bigg Boss as a microcosm of the interpersonal relationships observed in real life, we could make sense of what people gossip about. For instance, in case of men, conversations on their resources and cues to resource acquisition seemed more pertinent, while that of physical and sexual reputation in case of women seemed more prevalent. Culture dictates certain roles for men and women, and the transgressions of these roles might become the subject of gossip.

Moreover, engaging in gossip, and thereby sharing social information about others, might facilitate the development of skills required in social settings. That is, just the right amount of gossip might help us function well in society, especially in a competitive framework. This is a qualified statement, however. If we were to gossip, it must be about transgressions of others, and not just instigated by pure mirth. All the conversations others had about the winner and finalists, for instance, were about how good they were. Moreover, the winners themselves engaged in positive gossip as well. Thus, even though it was essential for the participants to compete with each other, they also needed to form alliances and friendships, for which they would need to be perceived positively. Perhaps because five of the six housemates who were investigated were women, most of the gossip evaluated was positive. Previous research has found that when women gossip, they employ positive terms, even if the emphasis is on negative traits.

A still from an episode of Bigg Boss Season 11. YouTube screenshot.

A still from an episode of Bigg Boss Season 11. YouTube screenshot.

Of course, it is entirely possible that the show itself may have been edited to bring out the 'juicier' content, and not every conversation that occurs within the 24 hours is telecast. But regardless of these factors, reality television includes aspects of real life, and transmutes them into a livelier and more appealing experience. Without the creative editing of broadcasters, it would end up reflecting only the dull bits of life. But then again, it is likely that the 'juicy' conversations that were telecast would contain most of the gossip that did occur in the house.

Based on this, we argue that gossip is an effective tool if you want to understand what people around you consider 'acceptable' and 'unacceptable', but it is wise to remember that others may gossip about you as well, so try not to be too malevolent.

Acknowledgment: I am thankful to Teresa Albertina Bhengra for voluntarily re-watching Bigg Boss for the drama (but also for me).

Arathy Puthillam is a Research Assistant at the Department of Psychology at Monk Prayogshala, a not-for-profit social sciences research organisation based in Mumbai. She tweets @WallflowerBlack.

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Updated Date: Oct 16, 2019 15:52:51 IST