10th June 2024 – (Hong Kong) Scandalous rumours, salacious stories about friends and colleagues, juicy tidbits too delicious not to share—gossip has long been regarded as a crass indulgence, the stuff of busybodies and those lacking decorum. Yet recent research suggests this behaviour so often condemned as pernicious might be more defensible than we assume. Far from mere frivolity, the humble conversational pastime of dishing dirt on others appears to serve an important social function and confer evolutionary advantages. Before we dismiss gossip as poisonous prattle, it’s worth examining its upsides through an impartial lens.

At first blush, the idea that gossiping could be virtuous seems a stretch. We tend to associate it with schoolyard whispering, idle chatter around the workplace watercooler and tawdry celebrity tittle-tattle. There’s an unsavoury reputation of rumour-mongering being a vehicle for malice—to tear others down behind their backs, sow social discord and gain petty advantages. Certainly, gossip can be deployed nefariously and laudably ranks low among humanity’s nobler impulses.

However, recent findings from social scientists reveal a more nuanced picture and suggest this deep-rooted proclivity may be more constructive than assumed. One major clue is gossip’s sheer ubiquity—it seems to be a universal human behaviour transcending cultures, ages and socioeconomic strata. University of Maryland researchers found people spend about an hour per day on average disseminating personal information about third parties not present. If gossiping was purely a toxic impulse to be overcome, one might expect evolution to have pruned this time-consuming habit from the human experience.

Instead, a new study from a collaborative team at the University of Maryland and Stanford University posits that gossiping likely emerged as an adaptive strategy in our ancestral environments, affording an “evolutionary advantage” to those engaging in it. Using computer models mimicking human decision-making, the researchers demonstrated how sharing reputational information encouraged cooperation and defused selfishness within groups—as people shaped up to avoid becoming targets of malicious whispering themselves.

“If other people are going to be on their best behaviour because they know that you gossip, then they’re more likely to cooperate with you on things,” explains Dana Nau, a co-author and retired University of Maryland computer scientist. “The fact that you gossip ends up providing a benefit to you as a gossiper.”

Their simulation found 90% of virtual subjects ended up becoming gossipers themselves—suggesting a powerful incentive. Moreover, small-town settings where reputations are deeply entrenched and social networks tightly woven were particularly fertile for such dynamics. Rural gossip may be more than just a trope.

This “selfishness deterrence” effect, where the threat of being gossiped about compels uprightness, hints at a deeper evolutionary logic. Our ancestral survival likely depended on separating the trustworthy allies from the self-serving schemers. As social primates, being clued into reputations around us was vitally important, facilitating cooperation while allowing us to avoid those keen on chicanery when lucrative opportunities arose to exploit others.

“In order to survive and pass along your genes it has pretty much always been necessary to know about the lives of those around you: who had powerful friends, who was sleeping with whom, who had limited resources, and who might stab you in the back when times got tough,” says Frank McAndrew, a psychology professor at Knox College. “That knowledge helped people get ahead socially.”

Those indifferent to such social information and unconcerned with others’ standing were at an evolutionary disadvantage when it came to negotiating their tribal environments safely and effectively. Over the eons, that reproductive edge made the gossips amongst us and allowed this behaviour to persist and even be advantageous in the societies we forged as a species.

While there may be an innate tendency towards gossip, research suggests we’re not all equal practitioners. Women tend to do more of it, particularly of the more innocuous “neutral gossip” variety involving no moral judgments, per a 2019 study in Social Psychological and Personality Science that tracked hundreds of people wearing audio recorders. Extraverts also tend to spread more chatter, likely tapping their penchant for conviviality and attention-seeking. Curiously, the recorded gossiping habits showed most tittle-tattle (75%) was of this neutral sort—neither overtly flattering nor disparaging.

This indicates much gossip may be of a relatively benign, informationally-oriented strain rather than the bald cruelty and character assassination we instinctively envision. In fact, evidence suggests most of us see gossiping about others’ misdeeds as a moral public service of sorts—an expression of concern for others’ wellbeing and an attempt to limit antisocial behaviours.

“A lot of gossip is driven by concern for others and has positive, social effects,” remarks sociologist Robb Willer of Stanford University, who has extensively researched this behaviour.

Willer has conducted studies illustrating how those known for conscientiousness and generosity are quicker to pass along unflattering rumours about unscrupulous types, ideally forewarning those in their social circles. Such “prosocial gossip” deters exploitation and dysfunction—evolutionary game theory models show groups rife with indiscriminate gossipers tend to cooperate and avoid untrustworthy relations more readily.

There is wisdom in judiciously sharing unsavoury insights about freeloaders and backstabbers with others. Few phenomena elicit resentment quite like unfairness—the scourge of free-riders exploiting a system based on mutual trust and reciprocity. Gossip is one mechanism for exposing such miscreants, rallying public opinion against their misdeeds and ideally pressuring them to walk a straighter path.

If learning a local merchant has a history of shoddy workmanship, warning your neighbours might prevent future injustices. Finding out someone is a philanderer allows you to tip off those being deceived, potentially sparing them heartache. In workplace contexts, confidentially vetting coworkers to avoid partnerships with lazier colleagues or those prone to taking undue credit can be prudent self-preservation.

“Spreading rumours about people who have behaved badly allows our friends and acquaintances to know who to trust,” says Willer. “And the threat of gossip deters bad behaviour in the first place as people seek to avoid developing a bad reputation.”

Of course, there are virtuous and less virtuous ways to gossip. Indelicate boors who compulsively kiss and tell any salacious secret they stumble upon are unlikely founts of resonant social commentary. Those indiscriminate blabbermouths keen only on stoking dramas or grabbing the spotlight tread into meanness and exploitation— the hallmarks of what we’d consider decidedly unhealthy gossip.

The moral gossipers parcel out pertinent information judiciously and with discretion to a sympathetic ear, ideally untangling knotty social conundrums or righting interpersonal wrongs. A skilled practitioner sifts through rumour and fact, rooting out the truth yet seldom embroiders upon already spicy material with further exaggeration. Crucially, they bear no ulterior motive beyond lending insights—not pursuing a rivalry, settling scores or shamelessly aggrandizing themselves. It’s a delicate balance.

“Gossiping is a social skill,” says McAndrew. “A good gossiper is someone who people trust with information and someone who uses that information in a responsible way.”

As with most complex human behaviours, gossip itself is amoral, taking on virtuous or nefarious tones based on motivations and contexts. Rumour-spreading aimed at needless cruelty or petty one-upmanship is playground material, worthy of disdain. But when grounded in substantive observations and imparted with benevolence as a social service, it can be a means of elevating discourse and even ethical behaviour—hence the need for situational judgment.

“Don’t gossip for personal gain,” recommends Willer. “The form of gossip we’ve found beneficial is negative gossip about people who have behaved in an antisocial way.”

The next time you find yourself on the precipice of trading personal anecdotes about someone you know, reflect inwardly. Is this enlightening observers about a legitimate public concern like harassment or abuse of authority? Or are you simply revelling in caustic hearsay for the prurient thrill? The intent matters. Wielding social reputations as a blunt weapon to defame is certainly unwise. But employed judiciously, the whispers over the fence or cubicle walls can help air injustices, discourage poor conduct and strengthen communal ties.