Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Evolution of Gossip

I won’t claim to have always been innocent of gossiping. I’ve done it, though I generally despise myself after. In most cases, I’ve gossiped when I was frustrated with the actions of one particular person, and I don’t believe I’ve ever told a ‘lie’ while gossiping. But gossip doesn’t have to be a lie to be effective in changing people’s behavior.

This last week, though, I discovered an interesting thing about gossip. I picked it up from my Evolutionary Psychology book by David Buss. Gossiping may well have been selected for by evolution because it can carry certain benefits for the gossipers. Here’s the story.

People gossip primarily about the “relationships” of others (who is sleeping with who), and about behaviors or events that are potentially dangerous (who assaulted who, who stole from who). People also gossip more about people who are higher status rather than lower status, which explains why people gossip about presidents and celebrities more than about their servants.

But how could this serve an evolutionary purpose? Well, first consider a primitive hunting/ gathering society, which humans lived in far longer than we’ve lived in our modern technological world. In such a setting, you might be a member of a tribe of 50 to 150 individuals. Since you have a limited number of potential mating opportunities, it can be very important to know who is hooked up with who and who is potentially available. A breakup might be just the news you were waiting for, because it creates an opportunity that you didn’t have before. In that primitive society, over a period of 100,000 years or more, those who paid attention to such ‘information’ and were able to act on it to increase their mating opportunities, might have left a few more offspring than those who didn’t pay attention to this kind of thing. Any ‘slight’ increase in reproduction levels leads to an evolutionary advantage.

Similarly, the hunting/gathering folks who listened to the gossip about who is hurting someone else, such as abusing a mate, or neglecting offspring, might then have avoided linking themselves with that person, thus improving their own reproductive successes. Again, a small change might have led to an evolutionary advantage over a very long time.

Consider Crod, a hunter in my tribe 100,000 years ago. Crod goes hunting every day but seldom brings back meat. Then my friend BabYaga whispers to me that Crod never really goes far when he hunts, but just finds a quiet, shady spot and goes to sleep. She saw him when she was gathering berries. I tell my other friend, Bam-Bam, that Crod appears to be lazy. Bam-Bam tells me that Crod has been making eyes at his sister, Pom-Pom. We decide we better make sure Pom-Pom doesn’t mate with Crod or her children won’t have enough to eat. We whisper in Pom-Pom’s ear and she listens. She becomes the mate of Hukk instead, who brings home much meat every day. Pom-Pom has 11 children, 9 of whom grow up to have children of their own. Crod has one kid, with Takky, who, it is rumored, will even mate with a Neanderthal. Maybe that kid isn’t even Crod’s. And what chance does it have to grow up and have kids of its own?

Crod loses; Bam-Bam and Pom-Pom win. Gossip has served an evolutionary purpose.

I still don’t like gossip, but I sure understand it a lot better now than I did before.
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33 comments:

Ron Scheer said...

Gossip is generally a form of fault-finding. Given its various self-serving purposes, I'm wondering how it might also have had anti-selective uses.

Elaine Ash said...

Well, never thought of it that way. Leave it to you Charles! I suppose all forms of human behavior serve a purpose or they wouldn't survive through the ages. Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

pattinase (abbott) said...

We have a friend who studies sociobiology. Today he aired the opinion that men rape women to spread their seed. That rape is functional behavior. I am always wary of genetic or evolutionary explanations of behavior. It is too easy to explain bad behavior as inherent or functional.

Keith said...

Interesting. I've never thought of that aspect of gossiping.

Chris said...

I don't know. I'd need to see pictures of Tacky and Pom-Pom to see who the real winner is.

Deka Black said...

Curiious... never think about gossip this way...

SQT said...

What's interesting to me is how gossip has evolved. I'm very uncomfortable when someone within my social group gossips and I try to avoid it when I can. But I think nothing of going online and reading the headlines of the day- and those often take a gossipy tone. If it doesn't affect me, or anyone I know, I don't think twice about repeating it either. Seems like technology may have taken gossip way beyond its evolutionary origins.

sage said...

I knew gossip went back to prehistoric times--but then I grew up on the comic strip B.C. and the Flintsones!

laughingwolf said...

aha!

good post... never thought of it that way...

too much gossiping goes on on tv... do i care? not a whit, part of the reason i threw out my tv when i did

and yes, it's all over the 'net, too

perhaps getting offline is next for me? uh... not so sure... yet!

Randy Johnson said...

Never considered it in that light. I can see the advantages in the setting you describe.

As others mention, I avoid those gossipy shows on TV and despite my regular use of the internet, I don't repeat a lot of the stuff I come across. Mostly the funny stuff and not a lot of it celebrity gossip.

And yes, I've probably repeated my share of gossip. But not in some years.

Charles Gramlich said...

Ron, all that would be necessary for it to evolve is to generally pay off a slight bit more than it costs. It would also make sense that people would learn to gossip to only the "right" people.

Elaine, I think so. Very intersting to me, of course.

Patti, the thing about it is, that it doesn't matter whether a behavior is "inherited" in some sense. Being inherited is typically seen as meaning that it absolutely has to happen. That's not true. A person could inherit a tendency to be hot headed, but learn to control their anger, or inherit a tendency to respond very positively to alcohol but choose not to drink. Even if something explains some elements of bad behavior, the fact that something is inherited doesn't mean that it forgives or makes the bad behavior OK. Biology is not destiny, at least not in 90 percent of situations.

Keith, It struck me as pretty fascinating.

Chris, lol. True.

Deka, it is an unusual way to look at it.

SQT, a lot of behaviors we engage in today have their roots in the old ways but have changed their effect and their relevance because of the hugely interconnected modern world we live in.

Sage, I should have thought of that. :)

Laughingwolf, I generally find the focus on gossip to be just lame in the media. But it's there.

Randy, the celebrity gossip is easy to see but I don't get it myself. It's got to be something I'm interested in before it catches my attention.

Cloudia said...

fun example of your teaching chops!

Loved the lesson, Charles. thanks



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laughingwolf said...

you nailed it, charles

staying in the loop, for the nonce, only cuz i'd miss the back n forth with my friends... and yes, we do 'gossip' a bit, but it's harmless play....

Deka Black said...

inusual and interesting indeed.

G. B. Miller said...

To me, gossip serves one key purpose: staying in the loop.

Serves me well at work and at home, because if there's one thing that I absolutely hate, it's being surprised with something.

Don't really mind if its good, but detest it when it's bad.

the walking man said...

The only thing I know about gossip for sure is in this day you can destroy a person with a well timed rumor. Start it four or five people removed from the target and it will spread to the point that the person will be ostracized before they know what hit them. Doesn't even have to be a big rumor, like I plagiarize 90% of everything I write...the small are more effective...did you know that Durfee tells a good story about himself but none of it is true, he grew up in Birmingham Mi and his parents were very wealthy...the inconsequential is extremely effective gossip to keep Crod from making progeny.

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Charles, a funny, interesting and thought-provoking post! Would it be right to say gossip itself has evolved through serving its evolutionary purpose? I'm sure there is an evolutionary angle somwhere in the etymology of gossip.

Charles Gramlich said...

Cloudia, the students liked it too.

Laughingwolf, a lot of gossip isn't harmful but just sharing and forming social bounds. The malicious stuff is what bothers me.

Deka, thankee

G.B., it's definitely informational. AT least in many cases there are nuggets of truth buried within most gossip.

Mark, I didn't know you grew up wealthy and stole all your material. Wow! The things I pick up. :)

Prashant, I imagine the nature of gossip has evolved, sure. It's a mutual process, I would imagine.

X. Dell said...

Hmm. I would say if natural selection were natural fact, then gossip might have served an evolutionary purpose. But humans often tend towards artificial selection, and I'm thinking gossip more likely played a role in that. For example, what if BabYaga lied about Crod? What if she just didn't like him, or liked him all too well, and thought a lie about him would keep potential competitors away from him?

Then too, gossip leads to reps. We say that Crod doesn't bring back much meat. But sometimes, memory is selective. His catch might not really, in objective terms, be that different from anyone else's. But, because he has a laziness tag on him, when he comes home empty-handed it's remembered in greater detail, and for a lot longer period, because there's a reason attached to it. When he brings home the bacon, it registers with society as anomalous, even if it isn't.

I'm really an agnostic on the subject of evolutionary psychology because of its tendency to rely on the concept of natural selection, and to explain, perhaps even rationalize, personal and societal traits that do not serve as well--things we know don't serve us well.

Of course, I think there is a human need for gossip, since it exists everywhere one finds people. But I'm not so certain that its roots are evolutionary.

Bernard Lee DeLeo said...

Here’s my take on what really happens in your fable. Crod finds out Bab Yaga and you are spreading rumors about him. He gets his trusty stone hatchet, thins out the tribe by two big mouthed gossips, and gains fear and respect. Pom-Pom digs the bad boys, so she hooks up with Crod big time, bears him many children, and in the usual way of solid women partners, turns him into not only the badass he always was but also into the next tribal chief. She inserts brother Bam-Bam at Crod’s right hand, and together they forge a small empire with an eventual offspring down the line named Genghis Khan. :)

Tom Doolan said...

I've always felt that there was an evolutionary reason for every human behavior. Sometimes it's hard to spot, but that doesn't mean it's not there. Good post. I wish I would have had more Psych teachers like you, Charles. :)

The Golden Eagle said...

Gossip obviously fulfills some need, since people do it so often--interesting example of how it might have affected evolution.

Jess said...

Brilliant. I'm going to tell my daughter to beware of gossip -- or to read your post and use it to her advantage. Well...maybe not. Could backfire!

Charles Gramlich said...

X-dell, I'd say the things you describe as a scenario are still natural selection. The evolution of gossip would have occurred long before humans began to systematically manipulate the natural environment in planned ways that I'd be willing to call artificial selection. The lying would be absolutely a part of the evolutionary process, though. In pretty much all social processes there is a role for those who use deception. Oftentimes there's a kind of 'arms race' between the cheaters and the ability to detect cheating. It would seem, too, that you don't grant natural selection the power that I think it possesses. Of course, the field is pretty new and is prone to overstatements at times, which is common to new fields. That'll eventually all come out in the wash.

Bernard, well yeah, or that could happen. :)

Tom Doolan, we have a pretty good time in that class.

Golden Eagle, a plausible explanation for sure.

Jess, I'm sure it has backfired many times in the past. But for it to affect selection it only has to work more often than it fails.

Travis Cody said...

I have been guilty of gossip. If I ever do it again, I'm going to remember that it could be an evolutionary advantage and feel a little better about participating.

BTW - I read Harvest of War last weekend and really enjoyed it.

Charles Gramlich said...

Travis Cody, yeah me too on the gossip. And thanks for the kind words on "Harvest." Glad you enjoyed.

Barbara Martin said...

A different way to look at how gossip affects people. I used to gossip but try not to now. Sometimes something said by accident can cause harm, but in the case of your story about Cord, it makes a great deal of sense.

David Cranmer said...

Absorbing post, Charles. (Easily one of the best blog posts I've read in awhile.) And for the record I despise gossip but, at the day job, it is a constant.

Ty Johnston said...

Ha! I had to laugh. If my mom is opening her mouth, she's gossiping. I swear, I don't know how she can catch a breath sometimes. Of course she would never see it that way, but I know way too many details about people I'll never know or even meet, all because mom keeps me informed. She's like twitter for her neighborhood.

Charles Gramlich said...

Barbara, I gossip when I don't even realize I'm doing it. It comes so naturally to people. We have to be conscious of it to try to control it, I think.

David Cranmer, glad you enjoyed. Work certainly brings out the gossip in almost everyone. It's hard to escape.

Ty, I had to laugh at the Twitter of the Neighborhood. you should trade mark that one. :)

oceangirl said...

If it is a lie then it becomes a false accusation. This was interesting Charles.

And Charles, my blog has a new address and it is on my profile. Thank you.

Charles Gramlich said...

Oceangirl, thanks for the heads up!

Erik Donald France said...

Yeah, makes a lot of sense. Your example is hilarious ~~

At one place of work one of the secretaries loved to gossip, which if you knew ahead of time you could decoy her with useless info.