By Nigel Nicholson, published on May 1, 2001 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
EVOLVED TO CHAT
From cocktail parties to family reunions, the water cooler to the professional convention, we all enjoy the guilty pleasures of talking about other people. But gossip is more than just idle chitchat, it's also how we arrange our world as social animals. Nigel Nicholson, Ph.D., discusses the evolutionary reasons why humanity is a beehive of communication.
WE'VE ALL SEEN BOTH SIDES OF GOSSIP. ONE SIDE is the warm feeling you get from spending time with a friend and sharing stories about mutual acquaintances. The other side is the stomach-churning anger, shame and frustration you feel when you realize someone is spreading bad news about you. We want to be on the right side of gossip, but sometimes it illuminates while other times it just burns.
When it's good, it binds people and communities together. As anyone who has lived in a small community knows, gossip is something that people who share a collective identity do naturally. But rampant individualism, the fragmentation of our lifestyle and the pervasiveness of competitive striving can drive gossip and rumor down more poisonous channels.
If you want to gauge the health of an organization, tap into its grapevine, taste a sample or two, and test the toxicity. Companies that think they need to eradicate the rumor mill to clean up the culture have got it the wrong way around. Gossip is inevitable and blameless--the problem lies instead in its content, which reflects precisely what is going on in people's minds.
Evolutionary psychology argues that human nature--our psychological architecture as much as our physical form--was shaped to survive and reproduce under a particular set of conditions. This was the existence of clan-dwelling primates, who subsisted by foraging and hunting in a savanna-like environment. It is only in recent biological times that we left the world of clan-dwelling primates for the world of agriculture, city settlements and, eventually, business organizations. We inhabit our high-tech world with Stone Age minds because there has not been enough time to change our psychology to match our environment.
In evolutionary psychology, several elements conspire to give gossip pride of place. First is the physiological capability of speech. Evolution gave us a stunning ability to vocalize by allowing the windpipe full access to the thorax and vocal chords. The second element is language. We have brains endowed with speech centers that allow every growing child to perform the greatest miracle of learning in nature--the acquisition of nearly 13,000 words by the age of six, rising to 60,000 by adulthood. This is what psycholinguist Stephen Pinker, Ph.D., has called "the language instinct."
Thirdly, the large and complicated brain that evolution gave us to create language has also mastered the politics of complex social living. British psychologist Robin Dunbar, Ph.D., discovered a direct relationship between primate brain and clan size; we are prodigiously equipped mentally to master the subtleties of a social network of up to 150 people.
Our mental design also includes a Machiavellian intelligence--the ability to empathize and read signs that indicate each other's motives and emotions. This is essential for "cheat detection," a key skill in the human tribe.
These tools allow us to gossip. But what role is played by over-the-fence chat in the fate and functioning of the human animal? There are three very essential functions of gossip: networking, influence and social alliances.
As social animals we are status-conscious, and for good reason. Navigating the social pathways of the tribe requires a good understanding of its complexity. There is an extensive stream of research, summarized in the work of sociologist Lee Ellis, Ph.D., and epidemiologist Richard Wilkinson, Ph.D., showing that among humans, as in other primate species, being of high rank confers an important array of benefits: health, wealth and happiness.
But attaining these benefits and avoiding failure is difficult. One reason is that social hierarchy is multidimensional. People deploy a wide repertoire of talents to compare themselves with others. What's more, social structure is dynamic; it changes all the time.
Various media keep us in touch not only with the fate of the notorious and celebrated, but also with the ever-shifting ideas and fashions that form the currency for social discourse. The media give us material to discuss and tell us about our own location within this labile lattice of relationships. It is no different on the local level. The position and importance of people in your circle of influence are constantly shifting.
The second function of gossip is influence. Even when our social position is apparently immobile, we retain an active interest in making sure we do not lose it. When we find an opportunity, we try to advance a good opinion about ourselves to those who can help us.
However, it is not enough to do good; you need a reputation for doing good for it to count in your favor. Like it or not, we all are confronted with the task of selling ourselves and making sure other people have a positive impression of us.
Self-promotion is not always a conscious strategy. We do it whenever we meet a stranger. It's in the way we engage in small talk and mobilize our facial expressions to convey interest and sympathetic sentiments. I once spoke with the leader of a jazz band who told me that many superb musicians don't get the recognition they deserve, while there are many high-profile stars of lesser talent.
Not everyone is equally good at self-promotion--or equally motivated to put the effort into it. Introverts have figured out that if they leave socializing to the extroverts they'll end up at the bottom of the pile. So they learn how to practice the arts of self-promotion, though it doesn't flow as naturally for them. Extroverts see that everyone is playing the same game-and assume the world is full of extroverts like themselves.
Often times we use gossip for the sake of what seems to be pure one-on-one pleasure. This pleasure derives from the third function of gossip: alliances.
Human gossip follows the same asymmetries as a monkey picking lice from another's fur; the weak groom the strong more than vice versa. People supply information to whom they are attracted and with whom they wish to align themselves. When I give you a tidbit of gossip--"remember, it's a secret"--I am also telling you that you are valuable enough to be a recipient--and that you should think well of me for doing so. We use information to form advantageous alliances that we hope will provide some stability, and ideally an upper hand, to our place in the social hierarchy.
When we gossip, of course, all three functions are being served at the same time. Go to any professional conference-which are huge circuses devoted almost exclusively to official and unofficial gossip-and see how people move among their networks seeking both influence and alliances. To experience a sense of powerlessness and exclusion, go to one as a complete outsider.
THE DARK SIDE
Many people link gossip with malice; indeed gossip can be vicious. John can raise his own status with Jane and boost Jane's own sense of self by telling her something bad about Steve, a known enemy of hers. Steve, without even knowing this is happening, can be damaged.
But Jane is also likely to go away thinking that Steve's predicament could happen to her. Although gossip can strengthen the bonds within a community, sometimes it becomes a covert contest between winners and losers. In an ever-shifting matrix of alliances, people will always be looking for an advantage, which leaves others at a disadvantage.
Negative gossip about third parties, who of course have no opportunity to defend themselves, is a dangerous game that can rebound on the gossiper. To be good at malicious gossip requires a high degree of subtlety and skill. The trick is to appear to be sympathetic to the victim while holding him below the waterline with implicit denigration.
Most people find this distasteful. Much malicious gossip is conducted unconsciously, an act that requires self-deception. But humans are especially adept at it; it helps us to maintain consistent social performance, according to Robert Trivers, Ph.D., one of the originators of evolutionary psychology. In the world of gossip, self-deception often takes the form of genuinely believing one is on the high moral ground of charitable sympathy, looking down on one's slowly sinking victim.
MEN DO IT TOO
It is said that women gossip more than men do. Perhaps they only do it better. Men just call it "networking."
What does tend to differ by gender is the content of gossip. Men are much more interested in who is up and who is down (hence sports-page obsession), as befits their predilection for competitive game-playing. Women tend to gossip more about social inclusion and moral alignment-who's in and who has merit.
What Darwin called sexual selection--the search by females for good male genes, and by males to advertise their quality--drives men toward competition and a single-minded focus on instrumental action. It drives women toward the dynamics of intimacy, emotions and social relations.
A key element of gossip is storytelling. We have a narrative instinct that is an essential aid to social insight and action, and a great vehicle for learning. Children are irresistibly drawn to stories, and we use them to instill all the most important ideas about the human community, its daily dangers and rules, plus moral fables about how to succeed and be happy.
In daily life we ruminate in narrative voice--telling ourselves moral tales in which we are the hero or innocent victim of some chain of events. In so doing we consistently make attribution errors-placing a human agent as the key element in a chain of events when in reality the true cause was something impersonal or random.
Collectively the same thing happens in organizations--especially when management becomes defensively tightlipped at a time of impending crisis. Nature abhors a vacuum and the gossip rushes to fill it.
Leaders and politicians have to be reminded that openness costs less, ultimately, than the impact of false stories and the time it takes to rub out the stain they leave. But the reticence of public figures and the public's appetite for news stem from the same hardwired motive to avoid loss and safeguard our interests. It requires a community of trust for gossip to be good for us all.
DO YOU GOSSIP AT WORK?
Luke, 24 Writer
Gossip's not necessarily honest, it's more like a Hollywood production. People telling their own stories try to make them exciting, but they tend to leave out the juiciest parts.
Gabriel, 24 Actor/Musician
If I know something, I can't seem to keep it to myself for some reason. The controversy is fun, and it's great watching someone else's reaction to a really juicy piece of information about a person that you both know.
Benjamin, 27 Art Director/Artist
I don't gossip very much, but I'm interested in hearing it. I like stories about celebrities-who's dating who, who's a jerk in real life. Knowing what other people are doing helps me evaluate what I'm doing.
Paul, 28 Art Director/Writer
The problem with gossip is it's based on little facts, fiction or hearsay. That's what makes it fun, but people take it as the truth, turn it around, and throw it in your face.
Tracy, 27 Actor
I gossip about all kinds of relationships--not just about love. It's an occupational hazard. I'm interested in why people do the things they do, what makes them tick-especially when what they're doing doesn't make sense.
Karine, 26 Writer
Gossip isn't always vicious, sometimes it's just informative and keeps you in the loop. I usually gossip about who got fired, who's sleeping with who--whatever the latest scandals are.
READ MORE ABOUT IT:
How the Mind Works.
Stephen Pinker, Ph.D. (Norton, 1999)
The Mating Mind.
Geoffrey Miller (Heinemann, 2000)
PHOTOS (COLOR): Gossips
Nigel Nicholson, Ph.D., is a professor of organizational behavior at London Business School. His most recent book is Executive Instinct: Managing the Human Animal in the Information Age (Crown, 2000).