“Mind your own business” is a common response to queries about other people’s affairs. Indeed, as soon as you are old enough to learn what gossip is your mother tells you not to do it. Gossip has a bad reputation as a social poison and toxic way to spread information. Certainly being a gossip has negative connotations. The wildly popular television show Gossip Girl captured gossip’s dark side and how it can be manipulated to destroy reputations and propagate lies.
In spite of gossip’s bad reputation, the truth is everybody does it. According to research, about sixty five percent of people’s discussions involve gossip and there is an evolutionary explanation for our fascination with other people’s lives. The theory is that natural selection favors knowing as much as you can about other people in your social network, whether they are an authority figure, potential romantic partner, teacher, friend, political ally or enemy:
Knowing about other group members helped people eschew risky alliances, by informing them, for instance, which group member might double-cross them.
In other words, it pays to be curious.
Studies show that gossip isn’t all bad and that, in fact, it may actually be good for your health and for humanity. Researchers found that gossiping—specifically spreading information about a person who has behaved badly—serves a social function. Gossip plays a critical role in deterring exploitation and promoting cooperation. For example, participants in a study behaved more cooperatively in a trust game when they knew that observers could potentially gossip about their behavior.
We tend to think of gossip as a bad thing and it gets a bad reputation, but if you were to remove it, that would be at the cost of social order.
“Good” gossip can also function as a warning to avoid untrustworthy people. No one wants to do business with someone who has a reputation for being dishonest or date someone who has a reputation for being disrespectful.
In addition to encouraging better behavior and functioning as a warning signal, gossip also fosters connections. It helps facilitate social bonds by showing others we trust them. It can also lower stress because sharing information helps relieve the burden associated with having to keep negative information all to oneself. As one researcher suggests:
Gossip is the human version of social grooming-a behavior common among other social primates in which one ape or monkey strokes the fur and picks fleas and ticks from the coat of another ape or monkey to strengthen group ties. Like social grooming, which helps other primates form alliances based on codependence, gossip helps humans develop trusting relationships and foster social bonds.
In other words, gossip is the human equivalent of picking nits. As one other researcher put it:
Much of what we call gossip is driven by a sincere desire to help others. Gossip can make you feel better. You might even say it’s therapeutic.
Bottom line: you don’t have to feel guilty about reading Page Six anymore. It might even be good for you and society.
I wish you all the best,