According to science, it’s in our nature to gossip, which might sound like a flimsy excuse for passing round a titillating morsel of scandal, but it’s actually true. Evolutionary scientist and anthropologist Robin Dunbar, defined gossip as ‘the discussion of social topics’, and stated that our penchant for information sharing has been crucial to the survival of our species – essentially, the people who were most interested in the lives of others were more successful than those who weren’t.
As humans evolved from small hunting groups into larger communities, it was necessary to have a way to communicate the expected social norms and to punish bad behaviour – to reduce the amount of bad people in the community. “Freeriders exploit the good will of other people, and if allowed free reign, can eventually result in the collapse of society," Dunbar said. "Such behaviour undermines the trust on which social life is premised. Without gossip, we would have difficulty maintaining the cohesion of our large social groups.”
With gossip defined as ‘talk between two people about those who are absent’, in his famous 1997 study of human conversations, Dunbar found that gossip accounted for around 65% of what was talked about today among people in public spaces. Children start to gossip around the age of five, and gossip usually amounts to around two-thirds of conversation.
And yet in modern day, gossip is defined as a bad thing. This is because the uses of gossip - and the way it spreads - have changed. With the digital age, it’s easy to spread rumours quickly, and not just to a couple of people, but thousands – we can troll strangers and criticise people we think we know simply because we follow them on social media. Plus, even our ancestors were more preoccupied with negative gossip than positive - because what was more essential to survival was learning about the troublemakers in the community not the do-gooders. And the same stands today – it’s more important (and far more juicy) to hear about someone doing something bad.
At its best, gossip is used to strengthen communities, and is also an exercise in creating bonds and trust between individuals – it signals trust; a signal that says you believe the other person won’t use this sensitive information against you, or that someone trusts you to hold onto this information. This ability to share makes friendships stronger.
The problem with contemporary gossip is it’s made into a female-only problem, when in fact men gossip just as much as women. The way women use gossip is seen as more malicious than the way men use it – with men it’s deemed harmless ‘locker room talk’, but with women it’s plain nasty. But next time you want to spill the tea, remember this: Dunbar says idle chatter with others gave early humans a sense of shared identity. Your gossip habit might actually be promoting essential co-operation, boosting self-esteem and strengthening your relationship.