The Psychology of Gossip
XoXo Gossip Girl might be the first thing you think of when you hear the word gossip but it’s a concept much older than the early aughts or a bored housewife’s favorite pastime. Gossiping has been around since cave people had a bit of free time to notice things other than hunting and gathering. With a limited amount of food, resources, and mates gossiping became a part of our evolution as humans.
It’s Really Just Survival
Most problems our late ancestors faced were social- finding a mate, making friends, alliances and families. People needed to be social and have a social network to literally survive. Having the ability to predict and influence others’ behaviors in small groups was key to staying alive and passing on DNA. This created a huge (and needed) interest in interpersonal connections and the “private” lives of others.
“People who were fascinated with the lives of others were simply more successful than those who were not, and it is the genes of those individuals that have come down to us through the ages.”The Oxford Handbook of Gossip and Reputation
Further, remembering key details about people and their past behavior would help our survival. Not allowing ourselves to be the victim of manipulation, especially when the resource we were after was needed to survive, would be a strong defense.
Here comes into play the beginning of our ability to hold grudges, as an evolutionary response to staying alive.
Memories we store about others and then pass on to others is the beginning of what we now call: reputation.
Our brain is like a computer. We have different sections that do different things- we have an area in the brain specially designed to remember faces, and for better or for worse we associate certain attributes of people’s faces with certain emotions, feelings, and responses.
This can bring judgments and biases that are completely wrong, however, our brains needed to create associations with features to protect us from harm. This has evolved along the way as our brains have changed but nonetheless, it is still very much real.
Sharing information about those who aim to harm, and who they are was the start of gossip. Our ancestors needed a way to relay information to others to ensure survival. But this had to be done in a certain manner. Relaying information had to be done in a way that didn’t isolate yourself or deem you untrustworthy to maintain a part of the group and community.
This is where people got pretty crafty, and we see the formings of manipulation of others in order to relay the information we needed to which would suit each host.
Humans would not survive without “gossip” and further natural selection favored the “socially skilled” who was able to balance all aspects of the complex method of relaying information we now call gossip.
“Good Gossip: Helping Groups”
Gossip can be broken down into two categories: good and bad. This may seem as it’s oversimplifying the complexity but it gives us a good split to further explain.
Gossip evolved as a social control mechanism, a study done proposes that gossip is a “leveling mechanism.” Gossip was a way to stop individualistic power and dominance to promote the greater good of the group. Aka ending the power of one individual and by keeping them in check (Boehm, 1999.)
Gossip also is a way to learn the unwritten rules of a group or society. By talking about someone who does something outside of the norm to squash that behavior without publicly scolding them allows others to learn. It helps to maintain the status quo so that we attempt to squash outliers. This can also be good or bad…
Gossip works to maintain in groups and outgroups. Allowing people to know who is and who is not in their “inner circle.” Once a way to protect ourselves has now just become a social tool, for keeping those in and those out.
Gossip can also work to keep people’s behavior in check or to change certain behaviors. Someone who wants to be included may alter their behavior to fit in and therefore be accepted- which is someone humans crave: acceptance. Society starts to create “morals” and “rights” based on common behaviors which then further creates social norms and enforces certain behaviors.
“Bad Gossip: Helping Only Oneself”
Gossip can be thought about as enhancing one’s character by putting down another. Though as the saying goes, “what you say about someone else is more of a reflection on yourself them the other person.” This is a hard concept and mostly goes ignored.
The manipulation of other people’s reputations for personal gain is a frequently used tactic. Once done, again for survival, it has changed over time for different types of gains. It’s usually for monetary value or power.
We seem to gravitate to the shocking, the bad, the outrageous information about others because we can use it to benefit ourselves in some capacity; where that be to simply make ourselves feel better because we are maintaining the status quo – the “it could be worse” phenomenon. Or to strategy use for our gain, say in a competition of a business.
Gossip good or bad creates bonds and friendships- again ingroup outgroup. You know the information or you don’t. You share a mutual dislike of someone and gossip about it. It brings you closer together. Research found that gossip between two people increases the bond of friendship rather than the reverse of becoming friends and then gossiping together (Ellwardt et al, 2012.)
You share information about things that are relevant to your life with the ones who are similar to you, in your life. This has evolved from just the person in your small group as cavemen to now your followers on social media. Same concept, just larger audiences.
But you may be thinking, why gossip about celebrities? These types of pieces of information can create a relation or conversation with someone you may not have anything else in common with.
Everyone’s Doing It
Women spend more time gossiping than men – shocker. But they are more likely to talk about people close to them, like friends or family. Men are more likely to gossip when it has to do with self-promotion and personal reputation– work, stature, etc.
Everyone does it. Full stop. It’s not a gendered phenomenon. It may be called different things to take away from the societal stereotype — say “locker room banter” “shop talk” but it’s gossip no matter what you call it. (Dunbar 1997)
However, there is a difference between gender and age when it comes to the type of gossip going on. Young women are more likely to gossip about their rivals than older women (Massar, Buunk, Rempt, 2012) because of competition for mates in the earlier part of reproduction in a woman’s life.
And the topics are usually about physical appearance and sexual reputations (Buss & Dedden, 1990, Walliancourt, 2013, Waterson 2012.) Gossip with the outcome of ostracizing rivals seems to be the most common weapon of choice for women (Campbell, 2012.) This makes sense when a woman is looking to exclude another woman from her social network- and it’s done as early as the age of 6 (Bensesen, 2013.)
When you examine the motivations for this, it’s not just about mating, as clearly that is not the goal of a 6-year-old. It actually comes down to several factors including boredom but is usually motivated by a perceived threat with the goal of removing someone from the ingroup to boost themselves.
Both genders dislike being gossiped about, but research shows that women are more afraid to be “talked about” and men are more afraid of being physically attacked after the gossip.
From Cavedrawing to Internet Trolling
As we can see from this article, gossip has real evolutionary implications, but what happens when the threats change from finding a mate to unnecessary meanness on the internet for no real purpose? How did gossip evolve from benefiting the group to an almost sport like phenomenon all done while hiding behind a computer?
It seems it still stems from the need to keep tabs on our competitors and mates. Men usually seek attraction, youth, and fertility in possible mates while showing off their own status, achievements access to resources where women usually do the opposite. This can be seen online. Women post photos of themselves, men post their cars, money or other desirable assets (Geary, 2010.)
But funny enough, it seems women and men spend a lot of time looking at the same types of images. Men like to look at women who post desirable photos, and women like to look at those same images. But here again, it comes down to motivation.
It seems that keeping track of our own reputation and staying on top of the gossip was equally needed as a skill for our hunting and gathering ancestors as it is for us today as right-swiping, technology-obsessed individuals.
The only difference seems to be that we have much more of an influx of it today, and our reputations can change at the meer post a comment rather than a long grapevine of information. In conclusion, motivations stay the same– while gossip frequency has just sped up due to connectedness.
Big Thank You to “The Oxford Handbook of Gossip and Reputation”
This article was a way to distill the amazing book “The Oxford Handbook of Gossip and Reputation” edited by Francesca Giardini, Rafael Wittek. If you’d like to read the full book click here to purchase.