Gossip Is a Way to Survive

ByRose Palazzolo

June 27, 2001 -- As the summer heats up, people will be congregating on stoops, sidewalks and parking lots, taking part in a ritual that dates back to the start of civilization.

In fact, survival of the human species itself may be dependent on the time-honored and sometimes nasty behavior of gossiping, psychologists say.

The more you know, the better you can move up, down, sideways or away from the social and even the corporate ladder.

"Gossip gives us information on how to better interact with other people," says Frank McAndrew, professor of psychology at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill. "When we read something about how someone has acted or hear about how someone has acted then we hear the opinions people have of that action."

Complicated Social World Made Simple

Such knowledge lays the groundwork for knowing how to act and respond in a complicated social world.

McAndrew has been studying gossip and how it affects the relationship between people. The kinds of gossip we like tells us what we want from it, he says.

In one study that McAndrew is just finishing up with a former student, he gave people tabloid stories and asked them to rank their interest in each story.

"People were most interested in stories that were about celebrities that were their same age," says McAndrew.

In another study, he gave people scenarios and asked them to rank their interest in the stories.

He found that people wanted dirt on those considered more powerful than themselves.

"Pretend you are a caveman living in this little group," says McAndrew. "You want information that will help you do well in that social status in that group. If I find out someone has a broken leg or is having difficulties with their partner I can exploit that information in some way to help better mine."

The infidelities and rumors of improper behavior helps build a social map for what is accepted, weird, bad and even what kinds of actions improve our status and what doesn't, psychologists hypothesize.

"Good gossip keeps people in line," says McAndrew. "If people are talking about good things others do, we want to emulate that good behavior. It's a nice way of socially controlling people."

On the other hand, bad gossip is used to "destroy someone's reputation and that's why we have so many mixed feelings about gossip," McAndrew says.

Workplace Gossip Functioning

In the workplace, gossip can give us advantages and disadvantages. Evolutionary psychologists and social psychologists agree gossip, good and bad, tells a lot about what we need, want and will get.

"Gossip tends to reflect the corporate culture," says Nigel Nicholson, author of Executive Instinct: Managing the Human Animal in the Information Age. "In organizations that have a low-trust culture, you get gossip that is in the form of warfare."

In these places, people engage in back-biting and in gossip that is competitive in nature.

"Vague fears are turned into real threats as gossip," says Nicholson. "You hear people saying things like, 'he is going to get sacked' and so on."

In an environment where there is open communication, gossip is harmless and fills a function to form relationships.

"If I am in a low-status position, I am going to spend more time gossiping with a higher-status person," says Nicholson.

A little bit of dirt can help a low-status person look important to the important people, Nicholson says. The lower-status person with gossip has put himself in a position that could be useful to the higher-status person.

"The human tribe is the most difficult and untrustworthy environment to navigate," Niocholson says. "Figuring out how to navigate in this network involves jockeying."

But, if you grew up sitting on a stoop, gossiping about your neighbors on slow days, you realize sometimes gossip is just a way to pass the time.

"It's there mainly to deflect attention of your own life," says Village Voice gossip columnist Michael Musto. "A lot of people like to hear about other people's tumbles. They just really get off on it."

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