Why Gossip is Good
After my retirement from the university, I took a 100-level course in evolutionary biology. Our Lab instructor asked us to write an essay on gossip. Until I went into the literature on gossip, I shared a commonly held view of it: that it was bad to gossip. To be called a gossiper is no fun. The Talmud says that it (gossip) is a “three-pronged tongue” that kills three people: the teller, the listener and the person being gossiped about. Blaise Pascal (1623–1662) said that “if people really knew what others said about them, there would not be four friends left in the world.” But hold on. There are good reasons for gossip.
Gossip is ubiquitous among humans, and we learn it early in life. That gossip is simply “trash talk” is not true. The idea is more complex. Gossip is a form of conversation on “social” topics, i.e., exchange of information that includes (1) self-disclosure between conversers and (2) evaluative discussion about the absent others. Two-thirds of the daily conversation is on social topics. Only a very tiny proportion, no more than five per cent, of conversation about the absent others is malicious. In conversation, gleaning knowledge about one’s social world is the key factor that changes the makeup of the social topics. Gossip is a form of entertainment; it facilitates getting and giving advice; it gives reputational information; it is a tool of vicarious learning — gaining knowledge about personally unobserved behaviour; it allows people to establish, develop, and maintain relationships; it helps in influencing behaviour — reinforcing group norms; and it promotes social bonding — checking and aligning impressions.
All primates, including humans, are social for an evolutionary reason. Sociability, group bonding, is essential to navigate through new environments and to protect individuals against predators for group survival. Among primates other than humans, social bonding is done through “physical” grooming. Scratching each other’s back gives intimacy and builds trust. It works well in small groups, not larger than 80 members. History tells us that, as hominids evolved, they began to exploit larger habitats for food which necessitated formation of larger groups that other animals could not do. To build and maintain social bonds they had to shift from physical to “social” grooming. Social grooming required two conditions that humans were able to meet as their brains developed: they could read each other’s mind (social cognition) and use language to communicate. Language had evolved for bonding larger groups. Language facilitated gathering information beyond direct observation, hence a new social world. Exchange of social information (gossip) has been crucial to our ability as a species to evolve into larger groups.
Conversation on social topics is used to: advertise yourself — make yourself known to forge friendship or foster social relations; acquire knowledge from others of real and hypothetical issues; seek or give advice to make personal decisions; police the behaviour of free riders (norm violators), because free riding is destructive to the social compact; and to deceive (cheat) to avoid punishment and gain undesirable advantage from trust. Idle chatter (gossip) with and about others gave early humans a sense of shared identity and helped them grow more aware of their environment. Sociability demands trust between individuals and compromise between the individual’s short-term objectives and the long-term gains. Cooperation and not selfishness improves well-being.
Gossip came to play a key role in reputation management of free riders to maintain social stability. Free riders are those who reap all the benefits from membership of a social group but do not pay all the costs. They exploit the trust that is necessary for cooperation and living together. They become more intrusive the larger a group grows. If community members were able to communicate information about the free-riding behaviour of individuals it would curtail the movement of free riders and honest members would retain a dominant position in the social group. It will reinforce cooperation. Gossip has acquired a bad name because conversation is sometimes used to make negative comments about the behaviour or personality of individuals of which we do not approve. The underlying reason for this is the free rider problem: they are bad for the social compact. So, abusive gossip is a derivative of policing free riders.
Gossip is more than just a tool for enforcing cooperation through reputation management. Usually, it occurs in ambiguous social situations or when information is withheld from individuals. It can reduce uncertainty by quickly disseminating knowledge about events and persons. It gives opportunity to learn about one’s social environment: gossip is a tool for vicarious learning about the world and to appropriately adjust behaviour without first-hand knowledge. Gossip is an important means by which individuals build trust and make strong social bonds. Self-disclosure in chit-chats is an effective way of making social connection, an opportunity to establish trust and learn about others. Gossip is also used to share and compare impressions about other individuals (third party) not only to understand and regulate their own feelings but also to clarify acceptable norms of behaviour. Talking about the absent others has an implied purpose: acceptability of behaviours (i.e., morals, norm violations). A shared reality about social norm and conventions can be established through these conversations.
Several studies have confirmed these results. Most people engage in gossip when others’ behaviour is not directly observable: these exchanges help participants (conversers) to adjust their future behaviour based on the knowledge they acquire of others’ unobserved actions reported by their partner in conversation. The exchanged information also increases affinity for those with good (morally acceptable) behaviour not directly observed. If two people share negative feelings about a third person, they are likely to feel closer to each other than would be the case if both felt positively about the absent others. Social topics that consist of self-disclosures, are primary ingredients of social bonding. Sharing of information influences each other positively and creates a shared impression (reality) about others. The alignment of impressions through gossip can bring people together. At the group level, gossip facilitates cooperation on a sustained basis because it exposes bad (destructive) behaviour. One effect of vicarious learning through gossip is that it may align more closely with evaluative discussion of the absent others: individuals share private information through the “whisper network” about dangerous individuals. By sharing experiences, gossip enables communities to protect members and grow.
Gossip can make us better people. Hearing gossip about others tend to make most people more reflective: “I wish I could do like her/him.” Or “How could she/he do it?” Positive gossip makes the participants prouder of themselves. For example, someone at work is not a team player. You let others know so that they can avoid working with him/her. Take another example. You know that your friend is dating someone who has a reputation for cheating. Negative gossip inspires people to make efforts to improve themselves. For example, you let everyone in your circle of friends know that a friend did poorly in the exam. Or take another example. You share information with another person to get ahead or get an advantage for yourself. The worse participants feel on hearing negative gossip, the more they say they have learnt a lesson from it.
Gossip can have a prosocial effect on those who are gossiped about. Once people are ostracized in a group due to their reputed bad behaviour, say selfishness, they have incentive to reform their ways to regain the approval of their alienated peers in the social group. Most people have a good image of themselves and care for their reputation. Needless to add, gossipers must be dependable whether the gossip is positive, negative, or neutral in its consequences. Reliability of the gossiper affects the consequence of gossip. It is in the interest of the members of a social group to police and expose the unreliable gossiper. She/he is a norm violator, hence a threat to the social impact.
 See, for example, R.I.M. Dunbar, “Gossip in Evolutionary Perspective,” Review of General Psychology, 2004, Vol.8, №2, pp.100–110; and Eshin Jolly and Luke J. Chang, “Gossip drives vicarious learning and facilitates social connection,” Current Biology, 2021, №31, pp.2539–2549.