3 Surprising Benefits of Gossip

January 25th 2016

From high school locker rooms to office water coolers, gossip is typically considered a guilty pleasure. Yet it can hold a double standard: while we can't seem to stop ourselves from exchanging notes on the private lives of colleagues and scandalized celebrities, we are just as quick to shun loose-lipped friends who take a little too much joy in discussing others' business.

Though gossip can serve a selfish function, evolutionary science shows that being a busy body isn't always a bad thing.

1. Gossip Creates Bonds

Traditionally, anthropologists have asserted that language evolved in order for hunting males to communicate in prehistoric communities, but recent studies suggest that language was created out of our need to keep in touch with those close to us.

In his book "Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language," psychologist Robin Dunbar found that gossip serves a similar function to primate grooming habits. For apes and monkeys, grooming habits forge relationships that allow members of communities to bond and influence one another. Dunbar asserts that the social groups of our early human ancestors were too large to adapt grooming habits, so language developed to serve the same purpose.

Bonding doesn't just make our social lives more pleasurable, it also improves how social groups and organizations function.

"Gossip and personal friendship ties are elementary building blocks of informal relations in organizations. These relations are an important quality of formal organizations, as previous research has shown that employees tend to be more cooperative and productive when their formal contacts are accompanied by informal ties," wrote the authors of a study that examined the evolution of gossip in social networks.

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In today's world, even celebrity gossip can help forge connections between strangers and provide segues into deeper, meaningful friendships, according to an article in Scientific American Mind.

"Our modern-day infatuation with celebrities reveals the ancient evolutionary psychology of gossip in sharp relief: anyone whom we see that often and know that well becomes socially important to us," social psychologist Frank T. McAndrew wrote. Though sharing tabloid rumors might seem superficial, McAndrew believes it signifies deeper urges to connect and find common ground with new friends and strangers.

2. Gossip Teaches Empathy and Social Intelligence

Gossip doesn't always take the form of schadenfreude—the pleasure derived from someone else's misfortune. A study conducted by McAndrew found that we are compelled by both negative and positive information, and that gossip most interests women when it pertains to same-sex community members. 39 out of the 43 female participants were most interested in a female leukemia sufferer, suggesting that gossip can trigger and even teach empathy.

"When your gossip is conscious and ethical, you’ll increase your social skills and your empathy, and you’ll become more able to create honest, healthy relationships," explains empathy researcher Karla McLaren.

Teens GossipingFlickr/CalleePhoto -

In early human communities, gossip also allowed caveman ancestors to share vital information about who would share resources and act in the group's best interest.

"Our ancestors faced a number of consistent adaptive problems such as remembering who was a reliable exchange partner and who was a cheater, knowing who would be a reproductively valuable mate, and figuring out how to successfully manage friendships, alliances and family relationships," McAndrew wrote in Scientific American Mind.

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He links the impulse to gossip to the evolution of memory, particularly the area of the brain devoted to identifying human faces, and observes that we are most interested in gossip about same-sex peers in our age group who we might face in social competition. Like facial recognition, gossip helps us identify who we know and whether or not they are trustworthy.

3. Gossip Strengthens Communities and Identifies Cheaters.

In today's world, we may not be gossiping about who will steal communal food from the cave, but much of our chatter dwells in the realm of recognizing cheaters and "free riders" who take unfair shares of communal resources and violate norms of reciprocity and fairness.

Studies conducted on California cattle ranchers, Maine lobster fishermen and college rowing teams confirm that gossip can reinforce group norms and uncover individuals that don't act in best interest of the group.

"For better or worse, this is the mental equipment we must rely on to navigate our way through a modern world filled with technology and strangers," McAndrew explained the article.

A 2005 study on the evolutionary psychology of gossip differentiates between self-serving gossip and gossip about rule-breakers and harmful members of a community. Self-serving "mean gossip" does more harm to the gossiper's status in the group, while "helpful gossip" harms its target rather than its speaker. In this sense, gossip helps preserve human communities, alerting us when individual's values and actions are harmful to collective interests but it also reinforces trust in those who speak up on behalf of the group. Gossip can help ostracize potentially threatening individuals, encourage altruism, strengthen community ties and even discourage selfish behavior.

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