The Evolutionary Significance of Gossip
Language is one of the major hallmarks of our species. As humans, we take pride in our ability to think critically and express ourselves through art, music, religion, politics, and science. But in reality, most of these subjects are not discussed in the majority of human social discourse. About two-thirds of all human conversation is gossip (Dunbar 1996: 4); informal, trivial chatter, usually about the lives of other people. This information may come as an unwelcome reminder of our all-too frivolous interest in the personal lives of others. But if it is any consolation, most gossip is not negative and malicious. Whatever its moral status, gossip serves an important evolutionary purpose. It functions as a sort of 'verbal grooming', equivalent to the social grooming seen in most other primates, its primary function being the building and maintenance of social relationships (Fox 2001: 6).
The term gossip (and its meaning) has itself evolved over time. The word gossip originated from the Old English word godsibb, meaning "a person related to one in God, specifically referring to a woman's close female friends at the birth of a child (thereby being "godparents" to her child)" (ibid: 3). The word later came to mean a close (female) friend or companion. This later translated into the modern definition of gossip, "trifling talk, groundless rumor" or "to talk idly about the affairs of others," definitions familiar to our common vernacular. Because gossip now refers to a trifling and idle talk, it is regarded as a negative act, and is highly discouraged. It is important to realize that only a small percentage (about 5% according to Fox) of gossip is actually malicious or disparaging. Most gossip involves the discussion of " 'who is doing what with whom' and personal social experiences" (ibid: 4).
The Evolutionary Significance of Gossip
As I stated earlier, gossip may actually function as the social parallel of grooming found among many primates. These animals have been observed to groom far beyond necessity, sometimes occupying as much as twenty percent of their day. As it occupies such a substantial amount of time, it is clear that grooming is a very important aspect of primate life. Somewhere along the line of hominid evolution, when we evolved the capacity for language, gossip replaced this social grooming "because this physical mutual grooming became too time-consuming for the larger human social networks" (Fox ibid: 6). According to Robin Dunbar, a professor at the University of Liverpool and a leading researcher on human gossip, language evolved specifically for the purpose of gossip. Because our social network is about three times as large as that of the average primate (and probably even more in the post-industrial era), the amount of time for social interactions between many individuals is limited. Gossip therefore facilitates a time efficient strategy for humans to keep in touch with one another. It functions to facilitate the establishment and maintenance of relationships, bonding within one's social group, resolving conflicts, building social networks, reinforcing social values and norms, clarifying social status and position, influencing others, and creating alliances (ibid: 6). Gossip is therefore a powerful mechanism in strengthening the social bonds one already has, as well as building new ones.
It is important to point out that a common characteristic of most gossip is the element of evaluation. As stated by Kate Fox, "gossip generally involves more than the sharing of information about people's lives and relationships: it usually involves the expression of opinions or feelings about this information" (ibid: 4). Although evaluations may not be directly stated, they may be heavily implied through tone of voice or body language. Gossip is usually coupled with one's own views on the subject matter under discussion. These evaluations are not necessarily negative or disparaging. Evaluations commonly involve approval, for instance of someone's newfound lover, car, career, or fashion sense. However, this is not to say that negative evaluations do not exist, as they definitely do; and these malicious comments serve a very important function.
Gossiping can be used as a very powerful form of propaganda against threatening third parties. Malicious chatter about others has obvious social benefits, such as social bonding and rule learning. When one engages in critical or negative gossip with a (hopefully) trustworthy confidant, one is strengthening the social bond one shares with that person (through the fact that one finds it necessary to share the information with him/ her), as well as reiterating the social values and rules that both individuals share. This is related to the hypothesis that gossip evolved primarily to detect social violators. Enquist and Leimar have hypothesized that gossip may have evolved "to gain advanced warning of social cheats and to shame them into conforming to accepted social standards when they do misbehave" (Dunbar 1996: 172). This creates an 'Us vs. Them' mentality, thus strengthening social ties between allies while simultaneously forming alliances against possible social threats. Gossip can clearly be used as both a weapon and a tool.
We like to endorse the idea that we are somehow unique, given the fact that our relative brain size is about nine times larger than is expected in the average mammal (ibid: 58). But to no evolutionary surprise, we share many characteristics with our mammalian, and particularly our primate, cousins. The one characteristic that significantly sets us apart from all other species is that we have effectively evolved the ability to utilize language as a means of communication. Although other animals have mating calls, grunts, shrieks, and forms of song, none but the human species have been able to use language to such a degree of complexity. Perhaps language evolved so humans would have the ability to socially groom via gossip. Thus gossip is a mechanism that humans use to establish and maintain relationships, resolve conflicts, build social networks, avoid the violation of social norms by cheaters, influence others, and stimulate the natural production of endorphins which serve as natural painkillers (Fox 2001: 6). Gossip is undoubtedly an impressive social mechanism, but it does not serve a unique purpose. Humans have therefore successfully employed a unique aspect of our humanity, that of gossip, to assess the ancient need of social cohesion.
Dunbar, R. (1996) Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts
Fox, K. (2001) 'Evolution, Alienation, and Gossip: The role of mobile telecommunications in the 21st century'.
My name is Anna Hummel and I am a fourth year Physical Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. There is nothing I love more than stand-up comedy (except for Anthropology of course). I aspire to combine the two in order to become the greatest professor of all time.