Gossip May Have Played a Role in Human Survival

This could explain why talking behind someone’s back feels so good.

May 2 2018, 8:10pm

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It’s hard to resist a juicy piece of gossip. No matter how hard we try, the noble intention of minding our own business is so easily overridden by the drive to know something secret or surprising about someone else. Celebrity magazines and reality TV shows have contributed to the idea that gossiping is somewhere on the spectrum between a frivolous waste of time and a moral failing. But evolutionary scientists believe that gossip among early humans was actually a good thing that had a positive impact on communities and offered advantages to those who partook. In other words, us humans might actually be hardwired to talk shit.

The most widely accepted theory on the evolution of gossip came from anthropologist Robin Dunbar. Dunbar, who is a professor of evolutionary psychology at University of Oxford, defined gossip broadly as the discussion of social topics. By this definition, his classic 1997 study of human conversations found that gossip accounted for approximately 65 percent of what was talked about among people in shopping malls and other public spaces.

Dunbar’s theory was essentially that gossip functioned as a sort of grooming tool for social groups that were growing in size. As human beings shifted from smaller, hunter-gatherer societies to larger communities, there was a need for an effective, low-cost way to communicate social norms and keep bad behavior in check. Gossip, then, was a way for our ancestors to mitigate the negative impacts of delinquents and free riders.

“Freeriders exploit the good will of other people, and if allowed free reign can eventually result in the collapse of society," Dunbar says. "Such behavior undermines the trust on which social life is premised. Without gossip, we would have difficulty maintaining the cohesion of our large social groups.”

By Dunbar’s definition, gossip is not inherently negative. But social psychologist Roy Baumeister argues that gossip may be particularly tough to resist because of the evolutionary advantages that came with learning about dangerous things as opposed to positive or otherwise non-threatening ones. It was more important for our ancestors to know if there was a freerider in the group than it was for them to know about a good samaritan, for example.

And the same is true in modern life. It’s more critical—and a hell of a lot more interesting—for employees to know why a coworker got fired than it is to know why another colleague was named staff member of the month.

Ancestral gossipers might have actually had an evolutionary advantage over those who minded their own business. Piggybacking on Dunbar’s theory that gossip communicates social norms, Baumeister adds that gossip allows humans to learn from the mistakes and successes of other group members, even those beyond our immediate circles. Just as nightly news programs broadcast the misfortunes of others as a way to warn against certain behaviors, if it weren’t for gossip, our ancestors might have had to learn everything firsthand, the hard way.

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Though we don’t typically associate gossip as being cooperative, there is also an aspect to it that is. Brian Boyd, a professor of English who has written and studied the evolution of stories and storytelling has drawn from Dunbar’s theory to expand on the ways in which gossip might have helped early humans cooperate. Sharing information about other members of a society is a low-cost and efficient way to monitor how well people are cooperating in service of a shared goal, or to identify and punish those who deviate. Because social information was valuable to the survival of ancestral communities, sharing the right kind of gossip may have come with heightened social status.

“If gossip was recognized to be self-serving, that itself violated cooperative norms and was devalued. But giving good gossip, being alert to the behavior of others in the group, and sharing what you’d seen for the benefit of all, would earn favor and status,” Boyd says. It makes sense, then, why it’s not only gratifying to be the recipient of a juicy piece of gossip, but also why it can be so tempting to spill a personal detail about a co-worker, mutual friend, or family member to other members of the group.

A 2010 study of gossip among members of a crew team, which was conducted by evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson and his then-graduate student Kevin Kniffin, confirmed that today’s gossip reflects the same social grooming functions highlighted in Dunbar’s theory. It helps group members hold one another to agreed upon norms which in turn serves to regulate the behavior of individual group members.

Wilson, who is the co-founder of the Evolution Institute, a non-profit think tank that aims to apply science to solve global social issues, is interested in using what we know about the evolution of gossip to create a better world. He says that the theory of gossip as a tool for cooperation and accountability has important implications for how we might use platforms like Facebook to encourage responsible behavior.

According to Wilson, there are three conditions required for gossip to work as a regulator of behaviors. First, there must be agreed upon norms for what is and is not appropriate. Second, it must be possible for group members to detect when those norms have been deviated from. Third, it must be possible to punish the offender if they do not adjust their behavior.

Unfortunately, Facebook doesn’t meet these conditions. “Facebook could take more steps in the direction of acting as a behavior regulator, but a larger issue concerns Facebook’s revenue model, which is based on advertising. This takes us into ‘power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’ territory,” Wilson says.

Yelp is perhaps a better example of how gossip can regulate behavior on the internet. Through user generated content, Yelp allows for reputation management, encourages responsible business practices, and creates accountability among consumers and business owners.

Our understanding of how gossip evolved and what function it serves in today’s communities may provide a doorway into how we can use social spaces like the Internet to foster greater cooperation and accountability. It might also make us feel a bit better about the fact that sometimes minding our own business is simply too much to ask.

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