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- Gossiping has a bad reputation.
- But according to some research, we may have evolved to gossip.
- Talking about other people can create bonds and make other people see us more positively.
- But it can backfire if you only talk about people negatively.
Calling someone a gossip isn’t exactly a compliment. It’s commonly known that “great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, and small minds discuss people.”
Even so, gossiping is a guilty pleasure many of us can’t resist.
While idle talk can be fun, it also has the ability to create tension. For example, if you discuss negative things, like insulting someone, or talking down their achievements, it can negatively impact you as well.
It may make you feel better about yourself, especially if you are feeling insecure, but it also puts both you and the person you are talking to at risk of being in the firing line next. After all, do you really trust the person who always has something to say about everyone else?
Speaking your mind about someone can result in “spontaneous trait transference.” According to psychologists, this is when people are perceived as possessing the traits they are describing in others.
For example, if you talk about how rude someone else is, you may end up with people thinking the same about you.
It’s not all bad
Spontaneous trait transference also works with positive talk. If you’re discussing someone and you describe them as kind and generous, people are more likely to see you that way too.
According to Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary psychologist and author of “Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language,” that isn’t the only benefit to gossip, and it didn’t evolve by chance.
His work found that two-thirds of all conversations are based on being social, whereas the rest of the time we talk about intellectual topics like politics, books, and art.
He calls it the “social brain hypothesis,” which means small talk and gossip help us build and analyse the relationships we have with other people. In fact, he says gossip probably evolved from grooming, which is how many primates form bonds and alliances.
“The conventional view is that language evolved to enable males to do things like coordinate hunts more effectively,” he wrote in his book. “I am suggesting that language evolved to allow us to gossip.”
In our human society, gossip is “what makes human society as we know it possible,” according to Dunbar. Through gossip we work out each other’s social standings, as well as making and breaking relationships.
Historian Yuval Noah Harari wrote in his book “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” that all of this is vital for humanity’s survival and reproduction.
“It is not enough for individual men and women to know the whereabouts of lions and bisons,” he wrote. “It’s much more important for them to know who in their band hates whom, who is sleeping with whom, who is honest and who is a cheat.”
We are biologically wired to gossip
Our brains may have evolved to process gossip too, according to scientific studies. One paper from 1992, published in the British Journal of Psychology, found that people’s names trigger the brain in a unique way so you can recall information about them. In other words, gossiping about someone helps you retrieve the information you have on them.
In one paper from last year, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers identified the area of the brain that processes this information about personal identities, which is called the anterior temporal lobe. For example, when someone asks you a question about a specific person, this is the part of the brain that lights up.
The ATL is known to play a role in semantic memory, which includes our knowledge of people. When it received the right cue, it gathers all the information you have on someone and sends it to the right places.
Brains need training, and if we don’t recall information about a person for a long period of time, it will take us longer to retrieve it. This means that gossiping could be a form of revision, so we exercise the parts of our brain that help us gather information about people quickly.
In a study published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, researchers found that people were much better at processing information about people they had just met if they had large social groups. By talking with and about people more often, they were using those parts of their brain regularly.
So gossiping has its benefits. It can mean we recall information quicker, and it can make us closer to other people – provided we do it in the right way.