Why do we gossip?

I got inspired to write about this when I was browsing through some Facebook profiles of people I used to know at some point in my life. A particular face popped up in my Newsfeed, a girl I used to know who could not help but make gossiping about other people her sole reason of existence. In fact, that’s why we are no longer friends, I just felt like I could no longer trust her.

But I don’t want to point fingers at people, I am by no means innocent. Oh no, guilty as charged. I’ve done plenty of gossiping…and I think I would be lying if I said that I’ve grown older and wiser and know better not to do it now.

I think most people have gossiped about others in some way or another. And gossiping is certainly not a new thing. If you’ve ever read Jane Austen or the famous “Anna Karenina”, you get the impression that the 19th century seemed to be one big gossip fest. Considering the general fascination with celebrities these days, I can’t help but wonder (there’s a Carrie Bradshaw moment for you) – are we just wired to talk about and judge other people?

So, what exactly falls under the category “gossip”. According to Wikipedia, it is “idle talk or rumour about the personal or private affairs of others. It is one of the oldest and most common means of sharing facts, views and slander.” Hmm…well, if you put it that way, Wikipedia… But there are definitely two sides to gossiping: One is, of course, the anger and betrayal people feel when they are the subject of gossip, or the shame you feel when you have gossiped and feel sorry about it later (almost always true in my case).  But on the other hand, there is that strange feeling of bonding with someone when you connect over just how silly, dumb and ridiculous some people are.

Nigel Nicholson, Phd, says that gossiping about others plays a big part in forming collective identities. In fact,  evolutionary psychology argues that  we haven’t really outgrown our Stone Age psychology of clan-dwelling hunters and foragers. We still feel the need to be part of a group or community, to strengthen bonds with like-minded people and to accentuate the differences between us and others (e.g., skin-colour, culture, language, ethnicity, sexuality or different life choices). Evolutionary psychology literature also suggests that many of us use gossiping as a form of “intrasexual derogation”, meaning that we try to decrease the mate value of potential rivals. Could be a reason why we girls just can’t seem to shut up about “what a cheap whore xyz is or that abc looks horrible in that dress…”

In other news – women especially (damn!) seem to be more inclined to bad-mouth other same-sex “rivals” compared to men. McAndrew, Bell and Garcia’s 2007 study found that women were three-times more likely than men to gossip about same-sex “rivals” than, for example, their lovers or partners. Women also said that they would share gossip with other girlfriends, as well as their partners, while men seemed to be more likely to confide in their girlfriends (or boyfriends) than in other male friends. Young women also seem to be more likely to employ gossiping in their reproductive years when competition for mates is higher, according to Campbell (2004). And, apparently (Fisher and Cox, 2009)  it works! Men seem to rate females who are subject to gossiping as less attractive, especially if the woman who does the gossiping is attractive herself.

So, let’s quickly cover the basics that make gossiping possible. Evolution has given us three pretty amazing pre-conditions for gossiping that we probably don’t really even think about much in our everyday lives: Speech, language and big-ass brains. We have utilized speech and language as channels for communication, allowing us to manoeuvre our way through the complex social situations we live in. And, of course, to keep track of all the people that matter and that we communicate with, we need those super brains. Robin Dunbar, another of those clever PhDs, did a study on the relationship between primate brains and clan sizes and found that with our great brains we are able to handle social networks of up to 150 people (although most people have more friends on Facebook these days…). We’ve also been blessed with mental and emotional intelligence (well, most of us) that let’s us interpret emotions and read subtexts. So, to sum up, we are pretty well equipped with great tools to talk about other people.

So, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty. Why do we really gossip?

Social Alliances

Gossip may in many cases be socially beneficial. As mentioned above, it is often used to strengthen bonds between people and enhance group cohesion. It can also be used to discredit people who don’t conform with group norms or identify people who are using group members for their own personal gain (Dunbar, 2004), for example free riders. Quite ironically, gossiping can also create a feeling of confidence and trust between two people, because it gives them a chance to reinforce their bond against a common “enemy”. Or as Merry (1984) puts it: “Through sharing stories and disclosing private information about their peers, the sender (of gossip) signals intimacy and closeness”.  In that respect, gossiping can signify tying yourself to someone. It actually also plays a pretty big role in organizations and the work place where gossiping can be used to find out about the trustworthiness/loyalty of other colleagues (Ellweg, Steglich, Wittek, 2012). 

Influence

So, gossip isn’t all bad? Well, think again.  Even if it’s sometimes socially beneficial, gossip really only benefits individuals. Whether honest or deceptive, gossip is often a strategy to damage other people’s reputation in order to improve your own reputation.  Like it or not, everyone is concerned, to some degree, with what others think of them. This goes back to our social standing within groups or societies. And what better way to make other people think we are awesome by telling them, that in comparison to someone else, we are the bomb-diggity. So, self-promotion is definitely a big reason for gossiping. In fact, we even promote ourselves without knowing it by using certain facial expressions or body language to signify interest or empathy (Nicholson, 2009). Anyway, a little gossip here and there to make us stand out and to highlight how we would totally do everything differently (read: better) if we were x-y-z…And then there’s of course the hordes of young-women-haters who bad-mouth other girls to fight for those men (we do it all for love, really…). A little confession here: I think I have definitely done this a few times, even if subconsciously.

Networking

Networking links in with both influence and social alliances. There are lots of studies that suggest that a lot of things we really care about are connected to our status-quo in society: Wealth, Happiness, Mate Value and even Health. And, we seem to be unable to make our minds up on our own. Literature suggests that the way people make sense or interpret information is by consulting multiple sources (Hess/Hagen, 2006) and then choosing a version that is compatible with the majority consensus (Sommerfeld, 2008).  By gossiping, we keep in touch with the failures and successes of other people and, most importantly, what is considered a failure or success. Or what it means to be beautiful. Or fashionable. Therefore, gossiping, or singling out what other people “do wrong”, helps up to keep up-to-date and to adapt with shifting ideas and social norms in society, and to identify group identities.

So, there we go. A little lesson on gossiping. Is it good, is it bad, is it natural? I know that I have often gossiped about people and then been proven wrong, so I guess, my advice (if you want it) is to keep an open mind and not to gossip viciously. A good rule is probably not to say anything about anyone behind their backs that you wouldn’t say to their face (even though it would be an extremely uncomfortable conversation).

So long, gossip girls, until next time!

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