The dish on gossip: Its origins, functions, and bad reputation

The dumbwaiter was purportedly created so that servants could not overhear and share the personal matters of their employers (Hecht, 1956, cited in Foster, 2004, p. 78). Thus, many argue that society’s degradation of gossip stems from the fact that it threatens those in power, who respond in turn by trying to prohibit its occurrence.

Although many view gossip as nothing more than frivolous or hurtful speech that should be eliminated altogether, researchers who study gossip have found much evidence to the contrary. It turns out that gossip actually serves a wide array of useful functions, and that its roots may even be traced back to our primate ancestors.

The Evolutionary Origins of Gossip

We have learned where the word gossip comes from, but what about the origins of the act itself? Since gossip constitutes such a large part of human dialogue, some researchers believe that an understanding of its origins may involve understanding the origins of language itself. British anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar believes that language, and particularly social language, evolved as a mechanism for group bonding, and as a way to monitor the members of our social networks. Research has shown that members of all primate species engage in social grooming behaviors (i.e., cleaning or grooming each other's fur) in order to create and maintain important social relationships, and it is proposed that humans achieve these same goals by engaging in social talk – by gossiping (e.g., Dunbar, 1996, 2004). As will be discussed in more detail below, the exchange of gossip demonstrates trust and establishes friendships between individuals, and establishes norms for acceptable behavior within the group (Foster, 2004). Gossip allows information about cheaters and free-riders(basically the “bad seeds” of society) to be shared widely, so that you know not to trust “deceitful Dave” without having to actually interact with him and learn firsthand that he should be avoided. Gossip is such a vital part of human interaction that Dunbar goes so far as to make the claim “without gossip, there would be no society” (2004, p. 100).

Others have made similar arguments for the adaptiveness of gossip, claiming that the particular types of gossip people are interested in are precisely those that would boost someone's social status within the group. Specifically, McAndrew and Milenkovic (2002) provide evidence that people are more likely to pass on negative information about strangers and high-status individuals, and positive information about friends and family. Although (as the authors admit) this is by no means evidence for an evolution-based explanation of gossip, they contend that it is consistent with the idea that gossip may have evolved as a mechanism for individual status-enhancement. Researchers have also suggested that our obsession with celebrity gossip may stem from the fact that in terms of evolutionary history, celebrities are a novel occurrence. As such, the cognitive mechanisms we evolved to allow us to keep track of our in-group members are incapable of distinguishing between our real in-group members (e.g., friends and family) and other individuals that we see frequently and know a lot about (e.g., the stars of our favorite television shows; Barkow, 1992; McAndrew & Milenkovic, 2002).

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