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.