Why did we evolve the capacity for gossip? Psychologist Robin Dunbar suggests it’s because it enables gossip which we often think of negatively. But, in his book The Happiness Hypothesis, psychologist Jonathan Haidt suggests that gossip might be hugely underappreciated.
A Closer Look at Gossip
To understand why we first have to take a closer look at gossip.
Gossip is overwhelmingly critical and primarily about the moral and social violations of others. That’s the case because it allows us to determine the value of other people as potential partners for a reciprocal relationship – which is very valuable for obvious reasons.
The Benefits of Gossip
Gossip also allows us to quickly share information, which often leads to bonding with other people. Further, gossip allows us to keep track of everyone’s reputation without having to witness their deeds personally. Additionally, sharing such information costs almost nothing but benefits both gossipers and makes them feel more powerful. More broadly, gossip also helps us develop a shared sense of what’s right and wrong and can thus guide our lives, at least somewhat, towards what’s right.
With all these benefits of gossip, no wonder that almost everybody gossips. Ideally, gossip would create an ultrasocial world, in which we refrain from nearly all ways that we could take advantage of those who are weaker than us and help those who are unlikely to ever return the favor. Ideally, gossip would help us create a better world.
It rarely does, however, because of our self-serving biases, massive hypocrisy, and groupthink. So, while gossip has some benefits, its effects are mostly negative.