America is a nation obsessed with other people’s lives. A visitor glancing at our magazine and newspaper racks or flipping through TV channels immediately knows where our priorities lie, and it’s not with dissecting world politics. Instead, we hunt for news about the latest troubled starlet and watch other people’s lives unfold via reality TV shows.
Our fixation on getting all the celebrity dirt isn’t that surprising. After all, we learn from an early age not only to participate in, but also to enjoy, gossiping. Though talking about others is often labeled superficial and sometimes even cruel, it clearly serves an important social function. Instead of writing it off as idle talk, perhaps we should figure out what drives us to gossip in the first place.
Blame the Cavemen
Gossiping isn’t a new trend; its roots go all the way back to our cavemen predecessors. Back then, people lived in small communities and almost never came across people outside of their groups, at least not for very long. So everyone relied on everyone else in the inner circle for survival, which made it all the more important to know who did what jobs best, who could be counted on, and so forth.
Since there wasn’t an unlimited amount of resources, details about people became essential for competitive purposes as well. Our ancestors learned quickly that forging alliances and learning who was extraneous to the group was important for success. And as anyone who’s spent time in an office, playground, or other confined space with many people will tell you, a surefire bonding method (and sometimes even a way to increase productivity) is sharing a conversation about a mutual member of the group.
A Way to Fit In
Gossiping has a bad reputation, but there’s a reason it’s stuck around for so long. It used to be a literal “survival of the fittest” situation, but now it’s about social acceptance. When one person feels comfortable enough with another person to gossip, it sends a message that there’s trust and camaraderie between the two. By giving them something they can both relate to, it creates a bond that can extend into facets of life beyond what their coworker wore the other day or why their friend broke up with her boyfriend.
It’s also a great way to learn the different rules that dictate any social group. For example, if you overhear your friends talking about how another friend is constantly late, it lets you know they consider tardiness unacceptable. It teaches us about proper behavior and what actions to avoid if we want to keep ourselves in good favor among others.
When Gossip Goes Too Far
While insider knowledge protects our group membership and guides our future conduct, it can also have negative effects. We’ve all experienced someone talking behind our backs at some point, which never feels good. What’s worse is when it’s something completely fabricated, like a rumor. Unfortunately, we’re more likely to believe gossip above other information, even when our own observations suggest the opposite.
A study conducted by researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology and at the University of Vienna involved 126 volunteers playing a game that paired them off with different people, constantly swapping the roles of donor (someone who could give the partner money if he or she wanted) and the recipient of the donor’s money. At one point, donors were given a tally of how generous their partners were as donors, along with anecdotal information from others (as in, “He’s so cheap” or “She’s generous”). Donors mostly paid heed to the gossip over the facts, even if he or she had seen otherwise.
When it comes to gossiping, we’re also more drawn to the negative side of it. In a study performed at Knox College in Illinois and published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, 140 people were asked to listen to stories, some with positive themes and others rife with scandal, and decide how interested they were in learning more and telling others about it. Also factored in was whether the subjects were friends, family, strangers, rivals, etc. People were more likely to spread the negative stories, especially when they were about a rival of the same sex. (Survival of the fittest rears its head once more.) Positive stories were only of interest and worth sharing if it involved a friend.
The Celebrity Scoop
It makes sense that we’re concerned with the habits and activities of those around us, but how does that explain our near-constant focus on celebrities, whose lives don’t affect ours? Even if we don’t physically encounter them, it feels like we know them personally because the media promotes every detail of their lives. Celebrities have become members of our inner circles—they’re like mutual friends we can discuss with others, but it seems less harmful because the chance of them overhearing is slim to none. Sadly, we probably know more about the goings-on in their lives than our own extended family or work acquaintances.
It’s said that great minds discuss ideas, average minds talk of things, and small minds focus on other people instead. That’s true when the gossip is overly vicious and rampant, but occasionally talking about the people around us? That’s just human nature and generally harmless. Plus, removing oneself from it completely only leads to social isolation. The group member who makes a point of eschewing gossip is often just as ignored as the one who proves untrustworthy (read: is a blabbermouth).
We can learn a lot from a good gossip session—namely that people really do pay attention to our actions. So treat your friends, family, and coworkers courteously; there’s a fine line between participating in gossip and becoming the subject of it.