Gossiping is what makes us human, says Oxford professor
Gossiping about others is a vital part of life and could even keep us alive longer, according to evolutionary psychologist Professor Robin Dunbar
Published 08/06/2015 | 09:30
Talking about people behind their backs might seem like an underhand activity which should be frowned upon by society but it is what sets us apart from the animals, academics have claimed.
Gossip is what makes people human, according to Robin Dunbar, professor of evolutionary psychology at Oxford University, because it allows us to pass on vital information about who to trust, and helps us bond with family and friends.
In fact, far from feeling guilty about gossiping about others, we should accept it as a vital part of human life, which might actually help us to live longer.
“The most important thing that will prevent you dying is the size of the social network,” Prof Dunbar told the Cheltenham Science Festival.
“That has a bigger effect size than anything, except giving up cigarettes. Your social network had a huge effect on happiness and wellbeing.
“The problem we have is how to maintain our social networks. Language evolved to allow us to keep the oil of the social network flowing, keep us up to date, and tell stories which is really important for community cohesion.
“Gossiping is just chatting with people and keeping up to date with the social world in which you live. So gossip is what makes us human. The use of gossip in a negative sense is not seen until the 18th century. It used to be what you did with your friends.”
Dr Jennifer Cole, a senior lecturer in the Department of Psychology at Manchester University carried out a set of experiments to find out what people thought about gossips. She discovered that while people distrust those who gossip too much they are also wary of those who gossip too little.
“Social connection is so important. So that’s why gossip matters,” she said.
“We know we are violating someone else's privacy and it breaks social rules about politeness. But if people don't gossip at all we don't like them, we're suspicious. What we prefer is people gossip a little bit.”
In evolutionary biology the phenomenon is called ‘gossip theory’ and it suggests that as language developed it allowed early humans to pass on reliable information so they could live in ever increasing groups.
Historian Yuval Noah Harari, a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and author of ‘Sapiens:a brief history of humannkind’, claims it was vitally important in separating modern humans from other forms of hominids like Neanderthals.
“The new linguistic skills that modern humans acquired about seventy millennia ago enabled them to gossip for hours on end. Reliable information about who could be trusted meant that small bands could expand into larger bands,” he said.
“Even today the vast majority of human communication, whether in the form of emails, phone calls or newspaper columns is gossip..
“It comes so naturally to use that it seems as if our language evolved for this very purpose.
“Rumour-mongers are the original fourth estate, journalists who inform society about and thus protect it from cheats and freeloaders.”
A previous study from the University of California also found that gossiping can have positive outcomes such as helping society police bad behaviour and lower stress.
Researchers found that volunteers' heart rates increased when they witnessed someone behaving badly, but this increase was tempered when they were able to pass on the information to alert others.
So strong is the urge to warn others about unsavoury characters that participants in the UC Berkeley study sacrificed money to send a "gossip note" to warn those who were about to play against cheaters.
The University of Michigan also found that for women, gossiping boosts levels of progesterone, a hormone shown to reduces levels of anxiety and stress.