Think about it, says John Hardy. You probably feel a bit slimy reading about Casey Anthony's newest post-trial trauma or Lindsay Lohan's latest relapse -- but you may also find it hard to resist. That may be even truer of regular gossip, the tidbits we share about the people across the street from us.
You are not alone, according to Hardy, a professor of neuroscience at University College London. If you want someone to blame, try Charles Darwin. Our love of gossip, Hardy said, is evolutionary, part of our earliest mechanisms for finding the best mate in order to survive and keep our species going.
"Stripped down, gossip is largely about who is sleeping with who, who would like to sleep with who, and what the local pecking order is in terms of power and influence -- which, of course, influences who is sleeping with who," wrote Hardy in New Scientist magazine.
So in a way, it all comes down to sex. But, Hardy said, there's more to it. It also has to do with social survival, with being able to maneuver through the complexities of life in a village filled with differing personalities. In primitive times, those who were best at social maneuvering were the ones with the larger brains. You can see where this is going.
"Skillfulness in interpreting limited and inaccurate information is important," said Hardy in an email to ABC News. "Part of gossiping is also embellishment and subtle inaccuracy. The whole point is for you to have a clearer view of what is happening than everyone else."
Ancient Needs in Modern Times
What does all this have to do with, say, Charlie Sheen and Denise Richards? Hardy called it "evolutionary hangover." We are still wired to be fascinated with Sarah Palin or Bill Clinton, Kim Kardashian or Justin Timberlake, even if there is no longer a practical reason.
"Knowing other people's business tells us more about ourselves than it does about them," said Rob Shuter, who writes the "Naughty but Nice" column for PopEater.com.
Hardy, the scientist, said gossip is something we outwardly disapprove of, but Shuter, the gossip writer, said his experience has been different.
"I'm not at all embarrassed about being a gossip columnist," he said. "I get a lot of positive feedback from my audience.
"People just love hearing a good story about someone else," said Shuter. "We think we know these people on a first-name basis. It's never Jennifer Aniston or Angelina Jolie, it's 'Jen' or 'Angie.'"
So perhaps, if one follows Hardy's argument, we are doing precisely what our very distant ancestors did -- picking the most attractive members of our now-global village, and trying to find out more about them.
"Still useful. Yes. For sure," said Hardy. "Still important to know, among our community, who is sleeping with who."
"We might be ashamed of it," he wrote, "but our brains were designed to lap it up."