Why are we so interested in gossip?


THAT’S THE WHY:CAN YOU resist hearing a bit of gossip? When someone says they have a juicy morsel of news about another person’s behaviour, whether it’s a work colleague or a celebrity, aren’t you at least a tiny bit curious?

Gossip is often frowned upon as trivial and unseemly. And at its worst it can spread misinformation, damage reputations and isolate individuals.

So why are we so interested in it? What positive value could it have?

In an article in Scientific American Mindin 2008, psychologist Prof Frank T McAndrew from Knox College writes that gossip can be a way of bonding with others by sharing secrets with them, and that it can remind members of a social group about norms and values.

He also suggests that having an intense interest in the matters of others could have been useful for the social intelligence of our prehistoric ancestors, who lived in small groups.

Meanwhile, certain types of gossip may help co-operation and fairness within groups today, according to a recent paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

The authors describe this “pro-social gossip” as “the sharing of negative evaluative information about a target in a way that protects others from anti-social or exploitative behaviour”.

By highlighting the selfish and exploitative behaviour of the absent party, this kind of gossip might offer a means of protection, they argue. In other words, if someone demonstrates anti-social behaviour, gossip could forewarn others about them, and that could help people who receive the gossip to avoid being exploited or experiencing ill effects.