Us humans talk an awful lot. We are the only species on the planet that exchanges information predominantly through speech. Some of our friends, like the dolphins or the primates, have their own languages, but they don’t rely on verbal communication like we do. Almost to the exclusion of other channels like us humans do.
And what is it we’re talking about. According to the research, most of us are just mostly talking about other people. In fact, a whopping two-thirds of our conversation consists of gossip. Of course, we discuss other incredibly important things like the meaning of life, world events, the performance of the Wallabies on the weekend and how funny Gogglebox was last week, but overwhelmingly it appears we talk about the affairs of others.
Before some of you take the moral high ground and plead that you are way too intelligent, sensible and way too compassionate for gossip, it might be worthwhile thinking a bit further on the topic.
The term “gossip” tends to have a negative connotation. It can be defined as ‘casual or unconstrained conversation or reports about other people, typically involving details which are not confirmed as true’.
Unsurprisingly, we do not like when they find that they are being gossiped about, and as such there is a moral stigma attached to the people who are gossiping too much. However, more often than not, the gossips are not entirely negative — they tend to be a mixture of both positive and negative things. We provide other people with our assessment of another person’s reputation as we see it, typically involving both the person’s strengths and weaknesses, and with only limited evidence to substantiate either. These assessments might still be viewed unfavourably by the subjects of gossips, even when the assessment is predominantly positive. Nonetheless, we accept positive assessments with pleasure, but tend to be annoyed by criticism.
And how many of us can actually walk away from a juicy story about one of our acquaintances and keep it to ourselves? It’s so very tough! Surely, each of us has had firsthand experience with the difficulty of keeping spectacular news about someone else a secret.
When we disparage gossip as a character flaw of those shallower than ourselves, we overlook the fact that it’s an essential part of what makes the social world tick. Unfortunately, the nasty side of gossip overshadows the more benign ways in which it functions.
In fact, gossip can actually be thought of not as a character flaw, but as a highly evolved social skill. Those who can’t do it well often have difficulty maintaining relationships, and can find themselves on the outside looking in.
As social creatures, we’re made to gossip
Like it or not, we are the descendants of busybodies. Evolutionary psychologists believe that our preoccupation with the lives of others is a by-product of a prehistoric brain.
According to scientists, because our prehistoric ancestors lived in relatively small groups, they knew one another intimately. In order to ward off enemies and survive in their harsh natural environment, our ancestors needed to cooperate with in-group members. But they also recognized that these same in-group members were their main competitors for mates and limited resources.
Living under such conditions, our ancestors faced a number of adaptive social problems: who’s reliable and trustworthy? Who’s a cheater? Who would make the best mate? How can friendships, alliances and family obligations be balanced?
In this sort of environment, an intense interest in the private dealings of other people would have certainly been handy – and strongly favoured by natural selection. People who were the best at harnessing their social intelligence to interpret, predict – and influence – the behaviour of others became more successful than those who were not.
And then these genes of those individuals were passed along from one generation to the next.
Avoiding gossip: a one-way ticket to no friends
Anthropologists believe that throughout human history, gossip has been a way for us to bond with others—and sometimes a tool to isolate those who aren’t supporting the group.
Some argue that, at least in the workplace, gossip serves a useful purpose. In the workplace, studies have shown that harmless gossiping with one’s colleagues can build group cohesiveness and boost morale.
Gossip also helps to socialize newcomers into groups by resolving ambiguity about group norms and values. In other words, listening to the judgments that people make about the behaviour of others helps the newbie figure out what’s acceptable and what isn’t. Northeastern University professor Dr. Jack Levin, says that gossip can be good for our emotional health. (He makes an exception for the weapons-grade rumour-mongering that destroys reputations.) In general, he believes, gossip is a force that ties together social and business networks. Others identify it as a way to see behind the curtain of employer pronouncements.
Today, good gossipers are influential and popular members of their social groups.
Sharing secrets is one way people bond, and sharing gossip with another person is a sign of deep trust: you’re signalling that you believe that the person will not use this sensitive information against you.
Therefore, someone skilful at gossip will have a good rapport with a large network of people. At the same time, they’ll be discreetly knowledgeable about what’s going on throughout the group.
On the other hand, someone who is not part of, say, the office gossip network is an outsider – someone neither trusted nor accepted by the group. Presenting yourself as a self-righteous soul who refuses to participate in gossip will ultimately end up being nothing more than a ticket to social isolation.
Fear of whispers keeps us in check
On the flip side, the awareness that others are likely talking about us can keep us in line.
Among a group of friends or colleagues, the threat of becoming the target of gossip can actually be a positive force: it can deter “free-riders” and cheaters who might be tempted to slack off or take advantage of others.
Biologist Robert Trivers has discussed the evolutionary importance of detecting gross cheaters (those who fail to reciprocate altruistic acts) and subtle cheaters (those who reciprocate but give much less than they get). Gossip can actually shame these ‘free riders’, reining them in.
Studies of California cattle ranchers, Maine lobster fishers and college rowing teams confirm that gossip is used in a variety of settings to hold individuals accountable. In each of these groups, individuals who violated expectations about sharing resources or meeting responsibilities became targets of gossip and ostracism. This, in turn, pressured them to become better members of the group.
For example, lobstermen who didn’t respect well-established group norms about when and how lobsters could be harvested were quickly exposed by their colleagues. Their fellow lobstermen temporarily shunned them and, for a while, refused to work with them.
Celebrity gossip actually helps us in myriad ways!
Firstly, it appears our brain can't help not getting excited by the headlines on the covers on the trashy magazines.
The part of the brain responsible for our social behavior is the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is involved in social cognition and executive control. Social cognition refers to our ability to regulate our behavior and actions based on the real or assumed presence of other people. This is a trait that makes some want to conform to the norms and rules of society in which we live. Executive control channels our actual behavior and thoughts in the desirable direction. Studies with the use of functional MRI brain scans revealed the patterns of activation in the prefrontal cortex in response to positive and negative gossip about themselves, their best friends, and celebrities. A very interesting and revealing picture has emerged from these studies.
Two separate areas of the prefrontal cortex get activated in response to positive and negative gossip: positive gossip activates the orbital prefrontal cortex region, while negative gossip activates the superior medial prefrontal cortex. The intensity of responses was, however, very different depending on whether the gossip was about the subject of study or other people. Substantial activation of the superior medial prefrontal cortex was observed in both cases, regardless of the subject of the negative gossip. The orbital prefrontal cortex region was highly activated by positive gossip about the subjects themselves. However, this response was rather muted when the subjects listened to positive gossip about their friends or celebrities.
This study revealed volumes about the internal processes in our brain. It is quite clear that our ego makes us very attentive to any kind of information about ourselves passed around by other people. However, when it comes to information about others, we are biased to notice and register negative information preferentially. No wonder that the stories of scandals involving celebrities attract more attention than anything good these people do! Our own neuroanatomy makes celebrity magazines filled with the stories of scandals, cheating, and divorces, much more popular that magazines about happy family life.
There also could be a difference between strategy learning gossip and reputation gossip. A distinction noted by Belgian psychologist, Charlotte de Backer.
When gossip is about a particular individual, we’re usually interested in it only if we know that person. However, some gossip is interesting no matter whom it’s about. This sort of gossip can involve stories about life-or-death situations or remarkable feats. We pay attention to them because we may be able to learn strategies that we can apply to our own lives.
Indeed, de Backer discovered that our interest in celebrities may feed off of this thirst for learning life strategies. For better or for worse, we look to celebrities in the same way that our ancestors looked to role models within their tribes for guidance.
The bottom line is that we may need to rethink the role of gossip in everyday life; there’s no need to shy away from it or to be ashamed of it. Gossiping might just be a reflection of the curiosity that all of us humans possess.
If we gossip successfully and without intending harm on another, gossiping can assist in us being a good team player and sharing key information with others in ways that won’t be perceived as self-serving. It’s about knowing when it’s appropriate to talk, and when it’s probably best to keep your mouth shut.
It’s a fact of life: Where there are groups, there will be gossip. It’s how we’re wired. But like all things – there’s some skill to it.