Gossip Is a Way to Survive

ByABC News
June 26, 2001, 1:46 PM

June 27 -- 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.