People feed off gossip. It’s one reason why, in the 1960s, the National Enquirer swapped the gory, gruesome headlines they were known for with celebrity scoops and scandal. The switch gave the tabloid access to supermarket checkout lines and the “enquiring minds” in them.
But it’s not just tabloid readers who love to dish. Social scientists have found that everyone is hardwired to pay attention to gossip, and to participate in it. In fact, it’s an evolutionary adaptation – it’s become human nature to spill the tea.
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“We’re the descendants of people who were good at this,” said Frank McAndrew, a psychology professor at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. “In prehistoric times, people who were fascinated by the lives of other people were more successful.”
McAndrew, an expert on human social behavior and gossip, explains that to thrive in the time of cavemen, we had to know what was happening with the people around us.
“Who is sleeping with whom? Who has power? Who has access to resources? And if you weren’t good at that, you weren’t very successful,” he said.
Gossip generally has a negative connotation, especially when you think about hurtful rumors, or tabloids and a person’s right to privacy.
But in everyday life, researchers say, our chatter about other people tends to be relatively boring and neutral and serves its own unique purpose.
52 minutes of gossip a day
Most researchers define gossip as talking about someone who isn’t present and sharing information that isn’t widely known.
And according to an analysis by researchers at the University of California Riverside, the average person spends 52 minutes every day doing exactly that.
Yet the majority of our gossip is harmless. About 15% of our gabbing involves negative judgment – or what researchers call “evaluative” – but outside of that, the average person is just documenting facts, such as “she’s stuck late at work,” or “he had to go to the hospital.” This kind of neutral chitchat actually helps us build friendships, community or learn information that’s vital for having a social life, said Megan Robbins, a UC Riverside psychology professor.
“You can establish a relationship by talking about other people and finding out something about others in the group,” she said. “Even for those types of gossip that are evaluative, you’re saying, ‘I’m trusting you with this information.’”
Although gossiping is often stereotyped as a feminine, low-class or uneducated pastime, Robbins said that everyone does it.
“Our data debunked all of the stereotypes,” Robbins said. “As a social species, we have to talk about people. We don’t live in isolation, and we talk about people who inevitably sometimes are not present.”
Everyone gossips – and it’s not all bad
The practice becomes purely harmful when it doesn’t provide any opportunity for social learning, scientists say, such as with rude comments about someone’s appearance or health and comments that are blatantly untrue.
Where judgmental or negative gossip can be useful is when it provides cultural learning and compels people to behave better.
Robbins said there is compelling research that gossip might serve as a check on people’s moral behavior, deterring potential cheaters or slackers in a group setting because we care about our reputations and the risk of others gossiping about our bad decisions.
It can also be a way to figure out unwritten rules. For example, when we start a new job, the water cooler talk helps us find out what is acceptable office attire, who we might want to avoid working with on a team project, and whether it’s acceptable to take a monthlong vacation.
“Sharing gossip with someone is a bonding mechanism,” McAndrew said. “It does kind of increase morale.”
This human habit isn’t limited to a certain age group. Sociology professor Stacy Torres studied this habit among elderly people living alone in New York city. Her research revealed that older adults engaged in gossip at local restaurants and shops as a way to connect with others, maintain social ties and combat loneliness.
“This is something that we see across different cultures and different ages, although it may sort of take a different flavor,” said Torres. “A lot of them would say, ‘Oh I don’t want to partake,’ or ‘I need to watch what I say,’ but then would show up every day and participate.”
Torres, who is now based at the University of California San Francisco, added that gossip gives us the opportunity to vent about people while allowing us to still maintain positive social ties with them overall. Even when the elders’ gossip seemed to be negative or rude, it usually came from a place of thoughtfulness.
“They had nicknames for each other, some that were disparaging, but it was obvious they were thinking about each other,” Torres said. For example, they’d call each other names but then tack on a comment about reaching out to them: ‘Has anyone heard from old so-and-so?’”
“There was an element of concern,” Torres said, “and they were checking on (each other).”
Why do we care about celebrities?
Humans are hardwired to care about the lives of people who are friends, foes or family. Researchers call those people “socially important.” But why do we care about famous people we’ve never actually met?
“What’s going on is that our caveman brains are unprepared to deal with (modern communication). In those days, if you knew a lot about someone, by definition they were socially important to you,” McAndrew said.
This is especially true today thanks to the internet and social media, which means we know a lot about people we don’t actually know. Being privy to that information tricks our brains into thinking celebrities are socially important to our lives. One of McAndrew’s studies showed that we even gravitate toward celebrity tabloid stories about people of the same gender and age group.
“They’re our cohort – they might be our rivals or allies,” McAndrew explained. “Consciously, you know they don’t matter and you’re not going to meet them, but they press the same buttons in our brains as people who do matter to us.”
Celebrity gossip also gives us common ground with others. Pop culture knowledge gives us something to talk about during those awkward small talk encounters or at parties where we don’t know many people.
“You might even think about keeping up with celebrities as a social skill,” McAndrew said. “It makes you know about things that other people care about.”
If you’re worried that your gossip is excessive or otherwise harmful, start by examining the reasons why you think you have an issue, McAndrew said, as it may be that you’re not using the skill appropriately.
“Bad gossipers are either people who indiscriminately blab everything they have heard to anyone who will listen, or they are individuals with a clearly selfish agenda in which gossip is designed to damage the reputations of their rivals,” he said. Those who do it well “know things but are trusted to be discreet. They have the well-being of others on their radar.”
If you notice that “your gossip is hurting your relationships or taking time away from other things you need to be doing,” McAndrew said, it may be time to cut back. He suggested you try avoiding the situations or people that bring out the worst in you.