Like it or not, we are the descendants of busybodies. Evolutionary psychologists believe that our preoccupation with the lives of others is a byproduct of a prehistoric brain.
According to scientists, because our prehistoric ancestors lived in relatively small groups, they knew one another intimately. In order to ward off enemies and survive in their harsh natural environment, our ancestors needed to cooperate with in-group members. But they also recognized that these same in-group members were their main competitors for mates and limited resources.
Living under such conditions, our ancestors faced a number of adaptive social problems: who’s reliable and trustworthy? Who’s a cheater? Who would make the best mate? How can friendships, alliances and family obligations be balanced?
In this sort of environment, an intense interest in the private dealings of other people would have certainly been handy – and strongly favoured by natural selection. People who were the best at harnessing their social intelligence to interpret, predict – and influence – the behavior of others became more successful than those who were not.
The genes of those individuals were passed along from one generation to the next.
Avoiding gossip: a one-way ticket to social isolation
Today, good gossipers are influential and popular members of their social groups.
Sharing secrets is one way people bond, and sharing gossip with another person is a sign of deep trust: you’re signaling that you believe that the person will not use this sensitive information against you.
Therefore, someone skillful at gossip will have a good rapport with a large network of people. At the same time, they’ll be discreetly knowledgeable about what’s going on throughout the group.
On the other hand, someone who is not part of, say, the office gossip network is an outsider – someone neither trusted nor accepted by the group. Presenting yourself as a self-righteous soul who refuses to participate in gossip will ultimately end up being nothing more than a ticket to social isolation.
In the workplace, studies have shown that harmless gossiping with one’s colleagues can build group cohesiveness and boost morale.
Gossip also helps to socialize newcomers into groups by resolving ambiguity about group norms and values. In other words, listening to the judgments that people make about the behavior of others helps the newbie figure out what’s acceptable and what isn’t.
Fear of whispers keeps us in check
On the flip side, the awareness that others are likely talking about us can keep us in line.
Among a group of friends or coworkers, the threat of becoming the target of gossip can actually be a positive force: it can deter “free-riders” and cheaters who might be tempted slack off or take advantage of others.
Biologist Robert Trivers has discussed the evolutionary importance of detecting gross cheaters (those who fail to reciprocate altruistic acts) and subtle cheaters (those who reciprocate but give much less than they get). Gossip can actually shame these free riders, reining them in.
Celebrity gossip actually helps us in myriad ways
At its core, our fixation on celebrities is reflective of an innate interest in the lives of other people.
From an evolutionary standpoint, “celebrity” is a recent phenomenon, due primarily to the explosion of mass media in the 20th century. Our ancestors, on the other hand, found social importance in the intimate details of everyone‘s private life, since everyone in their small social world mattered.
The bottom line is that we need to rethink the role of gossip in everyday life; there’s no need to shy away from it or to be ashamed of it.