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How Humans Came to Love Gossip So Much

Gossip is the thing that makes us human. Why does this make us so uncomfortable?

Key points

  • Gossip is part of human nature because it was adaptive for our prehistoric ancestors.
  • Gossip is a form of storytelling, and storytelling can equip us for dealing with real-life situations.
  • In spite of the fact that gossip is a part of who we are, we tend to have mixed feelings about it.

Gossip is the thing that makes us human.

There; I’ve said it.

As long as we have had language, we have had gossip. In fact, some scholars have argued that language evolved in humans precisely so that we could talk about each other. I believe that gossip is very much a part of human nature and that in the hurly burly of prehistoric social life a love of gossip evolved because it was advantageous for early humans who did it well.

And so, the story of gossip is very much the story of us.

When you tune in to the nightly news on television, you will see a parade of stories about people: the rift in the Royal Family; the scandals and lies of the politician of the day; the messy divorce between two A-list movie stars; the desperate search for the young woman who went missing on vacation; the dark inner life of the latest mass shooter. We love salacious stories about the secret lives of others, especially when those stories allow us to make moral judgments about the people involved. And we love dirt, especially when it involves sexual or financial shenanigans.

Why Gossip Is so Interesting

Some gossip is only interesting to us because it provides reputational information about a specific person. For example, if I were to tell you that I was in a bar last night and that I saw a man having a drink, you would understandably look at me as if I was seriously disturbed and wonder why I would feel the need to share such an insanely uninteresting tidbit of information. On the other hand, if it turns out that the man I saw having a drink was our mutual friend Bill, and we both know that Bill is an alcoholic who has not had a drink in over 10 years, the story instantly becomes more interesting because of who it is about.

Other gossip is interesting to us regardless of whom it concerns. Stories about people who survived a life-threatening experience fascinate us and stick with us because they teach us something that would be very costly to learn firsthand. Such information gives us a chance to assess the usefulness of strategies for dealing with perilous situations that we might possibly encounter in the future. We can prepare ourselves for dealing with shark attacks, serial killers, or survival in the wilderness by closely attending to stories about people who have successfully dealt with these very challenges.

We Love Gossip for the Same Reason We Love Stories

It is for this reason that our love of gossip and our love of stories are two sides of the same coin. Evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker believes that because storytelling equips us to deal with real life situations that may come along later, people who were drawn to stories had an evolutionary advantage over those who weren’t. Even a cursory glance at children’s stories through time reveals a preoccupation with imparting lessons that may have life-or-death consequences. The often gruesome Grimm’s Fairy Tales, in particular, are full of lessons about what happens to children who wander off into the forest on their own despite the warnings of their parents.

The adaptiveness of our love of scary fiction may also help to explain why humans regularly spend time and money to terrorize themselves by going to horror movies and visiting commercial haunted houses. Horror movies and haunted houses trigger feelings of dread because they push buttons in our brain that warn us of potential danger. However, we like being scared by these things and it is fun because we know that it is not real and that we are safe. Scary movies trigger the mental rehearsal of escape and survival strategies and they also teach us something about our own strengths and vulnerabilities.

Therefore, we love stories because of their survival value, and we love gossip because gossip is nothing more than stories about people.

And it is perhaps because humans are uniquely hardwired to be fascinated by gossip that we have such a tormented relationship with it; we hate gossipers, but we hate being left out of the gossip loop even more. Those of us who have reached a certain age realize how unpleasant it can be to spend too much time looking in the mirror, and for humanity to collectively look into the mirror of our past and see “a gossip” peering back can be disconcerting to say the least. Consequently, many of us prefer to think of gossip as something that “other” people do. When we ourselves are talking about someone, we may truly believe that we are just “expressing concern” or “sharing important information.” It can be easy to deceive ourselves because the definition of gossip seems a bit slippery and subjective.

Just as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously proclaimed in 1964 that he “knew pornography when he saw it,” whether talk is judged to be gossip or something more innocent can be very much in the ear of the beholder.

More from Frank T. McAndrew Ph.D.
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More from Frank T. McAndrew Ph.D.
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