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Gossip's Dirty Little Secret

It is one of life's most undervalued and instructive pleasures. So why does gossip have such a bad reputation?

One hot week in late summer, Jennifer Aniston appeared on the cover of no less than eight magazines. Reports on her divorce from Brad Pitt ranged from sympathetic ("Moving on From Brad") to tactical ("Now It's Full-Scale War") to speculative ("Jen's Secret Meeting With Brad's Mom"). How could one couple's breakup lead to the pointless death of so many trees? The relentless reports seem to be such a waste of time, energy and paper. They are not. Gossip, even celebrity gossip, is far from pointless. It teaches us how to behave, determines our standing in the community, keeps us connected to one another and weeds out liars and cheats. Nearly two-thirds of adult conversation is devoted to people who aren't in the room, which translates to more than two hours a day. Believe it or not, this is not idle chatter. Without indirect evaluations of other people's behavior, society would simply fall apart. "Quiet! Here she comes."

Oscar Wilde once wrote, "There is only one thing worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about." The only people who are not the subject of gossip are those at the very bottom of their social world. Luckily, gossip is self-perpetuating: The more people talk about you, the more important you become; and the more important you become, the more people talk about you. When Jessica Coen, editor of the gossip blog, found her picture next to that of party girl Nicole Richie on Page Six of the New York Post, she felt oddly proud. "It's a twisted badge of honor," she says. "On the one hand, they were calling me a two-faced, backstabbing bitch, but on the other hand, I was suddenly worth talking about. The article is on my fridge."

For those in the public eye, gossip is crucial. According to Hollywood public relations guru Michael Levine, who has represented stars such as Michael Jackson and Barbra Streisand, there is little shame in gossip if you're a public figure. "You need people to say things, in front of your back and behind your back. The opposite of love is not hate; the opposite of love is apathy," he says. Legendary gossip columnist Liz Smith of the New York Post, author of Dishing, argues that gossip builds fame and legends: "I always say to people when they object to the things that are written about them, 'Accept it as part of your myth.'"

"Who died and made him king?"

Gossip isn't just good for the rich and famous. The middle manager watching over his cadre of cubicles would do well to let people whisper about him, too. Industrial psychologists warn bosses not to be too harsh on underlings who complain about them: Bashing the boss and talking trash about the coach unifies the team. Herb Brooks, coach of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, led his inexperienced players to gold by making them hate him. Brooks' coaching style was hypercritical and merciless, overworking his players to the point that they vomited blood. He told actor Kurt Russell, who played him in the film Miracle, that the team's contempt for him made them overlook their individual differences and work together. It was the loneliest year of Brooks' life, but he could not afford to be scared of what his players were saying about him. During filming, Russell used the same methods on the young hockey players who starred in the movie. Since they weren't professional actors, Russell felt they needed to build genuine camaraderie on and off the set. He didn't mind letting them grumble about him.

Gossip is a hallmark of a healthy organization; silence is a sign of disease. Cult leaders infamously use silencing techniques to control information. David Koresh of the Branch Davidians used to punish his followers for gossiping by forcing them into a pit of raw sewage and forbidding them to bathe. In the short term, it gave him complete authority over the group. In the long term, it might have undermined his leadership. According to psychologist Francis McAndrew of Knox College, people who stay on top don't forbid gossip; they use it to know what's going on. They maintain a clear picture of their social world by receiving as much information as possible.

"At least my wedding dress didn't come from the bedding department at K-mart."

We all have a deep-seated need to feel established and secure. One way to solidify status is to compare ourselves with those who are worse off. Since few acquaintances willingly share details in polite conversation about their troubled marriages, bad investments and underperforming kids, we obtain this information through gossip. News of others' travails actually helps us cope with our own difficult situations. Breast cancer patients improve physically when they hear about cancer patients who are more ill than they are. "People say to themselves, 'Wow, it's not as bad as it can get! That's great news!' and it really makes them feel better," says psychologist Sara Wert of Yale University. Through gossip, we learn where we stand in the bigger picture, often with at least a glimmer of schadenfreude. Shake your head in disapproval all you want: Downward social comparison is a healthy part of a well-functioning ego.

"If that girl's mouth gets any bigger, it'll swallow her head."

We have all heard the commandments against rumormongers and blabbermouths. "Thou shalt not go up and down as a talebearer among thy people." (Leviticus 19:16) But the truth is that people who don't gossip are viewed by their peers as untrustworthy, unfriendly or unimportant. "You have to be a player," says McAndrew. "If you are not involved in the gossip network, then by definition you are an outsider." Turning a deaf ear to gossip is a shortcut to alienation. Part of the reason is that gossip contains valuable information about the rules of society, from nose picking to cheating on your spouse. Jennifer Aniston's breakup with Brad Pitt made headlines because our culture disapproves of infidelity. By talking and talking and talking about it, we reaffirm our disapproval.

Supposedly, we disapprove of gossiping as well. As Joseph Conrad said, "Gossip is what no one claims to like—but everyone enjoys." But when people say they don't like gossips, what they mean is that they don't like people who are bad at gossiping. "The town gossip is really someone whose style is a little off," says Wert. "We all gossip, but they are too blatant about it." Talented gossips know when to keep secrets and therefore hold a special place in society. In fact, the tradition of the professional gossip in America goes back to our founding fathers, when Benjamin Franklin, arguably the most socially adept man in history, started a gossip column in the Pennsylvania Gazette in 1730.

"It feels so good to talk to you."

Gossip is much older than Franklin. It's downright primal. McAndrew and others argue that gossip is pleasurable because it is necessary for survival. "Gossip is like sex," he says. "It is so much fun that people can't stop themselves from doing it."

Humans gossip in the same way that chimpanzees groom each other. In chimps, grooming causes endorphins to be released in the brain, inducing euphoria. In humans, gossip generates a small high, which is magnified by laughter. "This may well explain why we spend so much time in our social conversations trying to make each other laugh," says evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar. Gossiping and laughter literally make us ecstatic.

Dunbar believes that gossip may be the primary reason that Homo sapiens developed language in the first place. Monkeys and apes can learn about each other's behavior only through what they see directly, but human language lets us know what happened before we got there. "If you came into a large organization and you had to wait to see everything you needed to know firsthand, you would never get the hang of things," says McAndrew.

True to this theory, people across cultures spend the majority of their conversational time exchanging social information. "We can talk about people we know all night and never get bored," says Dunbar. "But if I try to give you a lecture on Kent's Theory of the Unthinkable in Physics, your eyes glaze over in about 10 minutes. This leads us to conclude that the mind and language are predisposed to handle social rather than technical things." It is nearly impossible to explain scientific concepts without charts or diagrams, but the minutiae of office politics are easily expressed over a cup of coffee.

"And then he just dumped her... over the phone!"

Gossip scares us because we know that information can be used against us. But some people deserve bad reputations—liars, cheats, freeloaders and others who manipulate and abuse our trust. Eric Foster of Temple University uses mathematical models to simulate gossip chains. He has found that the denser the social network, the more honest people are. In societies in which everyone talks to everyone else regularly, not only are liars and cheats caught quickly, but individuals aren't tempted to cheat. In small towns, people don't lock their doors because nobody steals from other people's houses.

Our ancestors probably spent most of their time in clans of no more than 150 people and rarely dealt with people they didn't know. In such small groups, gossip can be a highly effective means of self-policing. The problem is that for the most part, we no longer live in communities where everyone talks to everyone else. "Dealing constantly with strangers isn't something we do very well," says McAndrew. In our highly independent, mobile society, sociopaths can move from place to place and never be caught. We now register sex offenders because we don't know our neighbors' pasts. Instead of the grapevine, we have private investigators and background-checking Web sites.

"No, no, his monkey was named Bubbles. His son is called Prince."

These days, neighbors and co-workers know fewer and fewer people in common. Enter Hollywood. While you may share no mutual acquaintances with the Starbucks barista or the TV repairman, you can both feel sorry for Jennifer Aniston and wish a pox on Angelina Jolie. Psychologist Charlotte De Backer of the University of California, Santa Barbara, studies how celebrity culture influences social interactions. "Young people especially use celebrities in conversations to become friends with new people they encounter," she says. "It's an easy-access tool to build a bond." In fact, De Backer finds that teenagers who don't keep up on celebrity gossip have fewer friends and have more difficulty relating to their peers.

Gossip serves as intergenerational glue as well. The Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky scandal not only enlivened debates about fidelity, it gave the nation a narrative to collectively chew. "All of a sudden I was talking about oral sex with my parents and we were debating whether or not it was infidelity," says Coen. "And I knew that somewhere on the other side of the country some other family was having the exact same conversation. It made the whole country feel closer." Seven years later, people still talk about Bill and Monica as if they were old neighbors and smile sheepishly about the cigar.

"You women get more business done in the car pool line than I do at work."

Ricky and Fred can't take their wives' gossiping any longer, and Lucy and Ethel can't take their husbands' complaining. So the men make the women an offer: Whoever can hold their tongues the longest will get breakfast in bed. That night, Ricky pretends to be asleep and mumbles an irresistible made-up rumor: Their neighbor Mrs. Foster has run off with the milkman. Lucy immediately tells Ethel, and the husbands overhear them through the furnace pipe.

Fred (shouting into the pipe): Ethel, this is your conscience. You've been gossiping. Lucy: Ethel, you have the loudest conscience I have ever heard. Ricky: Lucy Ricardo, you've been gossipin' too. Lucy: Oh, fine. Mine has an accent.

The Lucy stereotype is partially true. Women gossip somewhat more than men do, although both sexes talk largely about the same things (so long as you replace movie-star dish with sports and money talk). Women have broader social circles than men at all levels: They have more confidants, more friends and more casual acquaintances. Women gossip equally with their friends, boyfriends and husbands, whereas men gossip more with their girlfriends and wives than with their friends. But when it comes to information regarding potential mates, single men and women are both rabidly interested.

Gender differences in gossiping may exist because women were forced to adjust to new social environments more often than were men. Women moved in with their husbands' families more often than husbands moved in with their wives'. A woman needed to learn the social structure of a whole new tribe, which required excellent networking abilities. While early man rarely needed to gather social information, early woman could not have survived without it.

But Robin Dunbar of the University of Liverpool has a different theory. He argues that human societies are essentially run by women. When women find it convenient, they gather in groups to raise their children. When they don't, they pair off with men in monogamous relationships. "There is all this froth on top made by the men, pretending to rule the system, imposing themselves, and restricting what women do," he says. "But women are running the system at the interpersonal level. If women were to stop socializing, society would fall apart."

Sure enough, Ricky wins the battle but Lucy wins the war. As she serves him breakfast in bed, the milkman rushes into the Ricardo bedroom, followed by a furious Mr. Foster, who is wielding a pistol. Apparently, Ricky's made-up rumor turned out to be true. Terrified of the trouble he started, Ricky ducks into the kitchen. With her husband gone, Lucy hands the milkman and Mr. Foster 10 dollars and thanks them for their brilliant performance. The lesson: Don't mess with a woman and her gossip.

Like Lucy, we feign innocence with every act of gossip we commit.

Jennifer Drapkin is a freelance science writer in New York City.