I see this meme on Facebook sometimes. Part of me loves it, because I love talking about ideas. Even if I have no intention of actually designing my own board game or launching an American Mail Order Brides website to help women escape a trump presidency... it's still fun to talk about execution and logistics.
Still, part of me hates this meme. As a psychologist, I understand that gossip is a powerful evolutionary tool that basically enabled our entire existence.
Because human society depends on cooperation. It requires that people follow certain rules, whether about how much each person works, who each person mates with, or how much food each person consumes. If someone's hoarding the food supply -- that's a problem that endangers the entire group. It must be noticed. It must be discussed.
If someone's hanging out in the mango grove while all the other men are out hunting, putting their own lives at risk... that's a big problem. It must be discovered. This person -- whose laziness/cowardice decreases the food supply and puts other men at an increased risk -- must be shamed and ostracized.
Because of this, psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, almost every human society, past and present, considers it worse to be a traitor than an enemy. This is reflected in stories, folklore, and even modern treason laws. We innately hate traitors more than enemies.
Moreover, gossip is an intimate act that strengthens social bonds -- in a way that Oxford professor Robin Dunbar has compared to grooming in primates.
Although it only takes a few minutes to groom one another for hygienic purposes, great apes often groom for hours, which demonstrates a deeper meaning behind this simple, pro-social act. Likewise, Dunbar proposes, gossip is a way of maintaining social bonds that is more scalable than grooming. Words don't require individual physical contact, so you can share them with larger groups and tribes. Through gossip, you can "groom" several people simultaneously -- and the ability to maintain larger groups presents a huge evolutionary advantage in a world full of competitors, predators, and other challenges.
Another argument scientists have made about gossip is that it is simply people talking about each other. Social bonding and rule-enforcement aside, cooperative societies must talk about each other in order to survive. How do you hunt without coordinating your efforts? How do you know where to gather without hearing where others have had the most (or least) success?
It's pretty clear that gossip was a crucial tool for our ancestors. But neuroscientists have found that it still has a powerful effect on our brains today. For example, hearing gossip about people can literally change the way you see them.
According to The Visual Impact of Gossip, published in Science in 2011, negative gossip actually alters the way our visual system responds to a particular face.
In the study, Lisa Feldman and her team brought in volunteers and had them look at faces paired with gossip. Some of these faces were associated with negative gossip, such as "threw a chair at his classmate." Other faces were associated with more positive actions, such as "helped an elderly woman with her groceries."
Then the researchers examined how brains responded to the different kinds of information. They showed the left and right eyes of each participant two different images. Perhaps one eye would see a face, while the other saw a house.
This causes something called binocular rivalry -- because our brains can only see one of the images at a time, we unconsciously linger on the one we consider more important.
The researchers found that volunteers' brains were most likely to fix on faces associated with negative gossip, which suggests that we are hardwired to pay more attention to a person we've been told is dangerous, dishonest or unpleasant.
Which makes sense, from an evolutionary perspective. Negative emotions are way more important than positive emotions. Without loneliness, people wouldn't work so hard to maintain social bonds. Without jealousy, we would be more likely to be cuckholds and fail to pass on our genetic information. Without discontent, we wouldn't strive to get more when we already have enough -- meaning we're better equipped to withstand droughts, famines and other disruptions to resources.
And. Not knowing who is dangerous or treacherous means we're more likely to be robbed, murdered, raped, or ripped off.
Gossip is a powerful way to keep your friends, family and allies safe.
Because we are so much more likely to focus on negative gossip than positive or neutral gossip, and because cooperation is the cornerstone of human civilization, everyone (except psychopaths) is obsessed with what others think of them. As I wrote in a recent post,
Psychologist Mark Leary realized that, from an evolutionary perspective, self-esteem made much less sense than ratings of ourselves by others. To which everyone always responded:
“Oh, well I don’t care what others think!”
So he set up an experiment. He recruited participants to fill out a questionnaire that measured how much people thought they were affected others' ratings of them. Then, he selected the people who reported being highly unaffected, as well as those who reported being highly sensitive, and invited them into his lab for the next part of the study.
Participants were asked to sit alone in a room and talk about themselves for five minutes. Each minute, a “listener in another room” would give a 1–7 rating of how much he/she would like to meet the participant, as well as other feedback.
Not surprisingly, people who reported a high sensitivity to others’ opinions had a huge drop. But. The so-called mavericks had drops almost as big.
Leary also found that, while negative feedback significantly lowered participants’ self-esteem, positive feedback didn’t produce an increase in self-esteem.
Leary concluded that the “sociometer” operates at an unconscious level, and is highly sensitive to cues that your relational value is low or declining. Read more >
This was a great experiment -- but how do we get ratings in real life? How do we rate others in real life?
So, sure, it’s sometimes fun to talk about what someone ate or who’s sleeping with whom… But it’s also a powerful tool to regulate people’s behavior and ensure cooperation.
So next time you hear someone say, “Oh, I don’t gossip!” or, “Gossip is for lowlifes,” replace the word “gossip” with “appendix” and have a little chuckle.
About the Author
Eva is a content specialist with a passion for play, travel... and a little bit of girl power. Read more >
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