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Gossip: Social skill not a character flaw

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.

Studies of California cattle ranchers, Maine lobster fishers and college rowing teams confirm that gossip is used in a variety of settings to hold individuals accountable. In each of these groups, individuals who violated expectations about sharing resources or meeting responsibilities became targets of gossip and ostracism. This, in turn, pressured them to become better members of the group.

For example, lobstermen who didn’t respect well-established group norms about when and how lobsters could be harvested were quickly exposed by their colleagues. Their fellow lobstermen temporarily shunned them and, for a while, refused to work with them.

Celebrity gossip actually helps us

Belgian psychologist Charlotte de Backer makes a distinction between strategy learning gossip and reputation gossip.

When gossip is about a particular individual, we’re usually interested in it only if we know that person. However, some gossip is interesting no matter whom it’s about. This sort of gossip can involve stories about life-or-death situations or remarkable feats. We pay attention to them because we may be able to learn strategies that we can apply to our own lives.

Indeed, de Backer discovered that our interest in celebrities may feed off of this thirst for learning life strategies. For better or for worse, we look to celebrities in the same way that our ancestors looked to role models within their tribes for guidance.

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.

But anthropologist Jerome Barkow has pointed out that evolution did not prepare us to distinguish among those members of our community who have a genuine effect on us, and those who exist in the images, movies and songs that suffuse our daily lives.

From TMZ to US Weekly, the media fuels gossip mills that mimic those of our workplaces and friend groups. In a way, our brains are tricked into feeling an intense familiarity with these famous people – which hoodwinks us into wanting to know even more about them. After all, anyone whom we see that often and know that much about must be socially important to us.

Because of the familiarity we feel with celebrities, they can serve an important social function: they may be the only “friends” we have in common with new neighbors and coworkers. They’re shared cultural touchstones that facilitate the types of informal interactions that help people become comfortable in new surroundings. Keeping up with the lives of actors, politicians and athletes can make a person more socially adept during interactions with strangers and even offer inroads into new relationships.

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.

Successful gossiping entails being a good team player and sharing key information with others in ways that won’t be perceived as self-serving. It’s about knowing when it’s appropriate to talk, and when it’s probably best to keep your mouth shut.


Frank T. McAndrew is Cornelia H. Dudley Professor of Psychology, Knox College


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