February 12

Gossip: Why We Find Others’ Business Endlessly Fascinating

Instead of minding our own businesses, why do we "waste" time discussing others' comings and goings? Shouldn't we be solving the hard problem of consciousness instead of commenting on Lady Gaga's red carpet appearance (she literally seemed to have worn the red carpet instead of just walking on one) at the last Presidential inauguration? Read on to find out why gossip is so central to our natures.

Social researchers Levin and Arluke conducted an interesting behavioral research study among young adults. They distributed flyers for a couple's wedding invitation within a college campus.

Word soon spread about this wedding. In a survey conducted later, more than half the campus said they knew about the wedding. A small percentage (12%) said they attended the wedding and went on to describe the bridal gown and the limo.

Here's the thing: there was no wedding; the couple themselves were fictional. In today's parlance, it was all "fake news."

The research study was about the role of gossip in human behavior—an endlessly fascinating but equally misunderstood and much-maligned subject.

The 12% who actually said they attended the wedding either had very active imaginations or were just plain liars. They were taken in by gossip and didn't want to feel left out of important social conversations.

Idle Chatter

Admit it. When I say the word gossip, you immediately conjured up an image of someone you know—a chinwag—the equivalent of someone idling on their front porch hoping to engage passers-by in conversations about other people.


I'm here to ask you to rethink that notion. Because, well, science.

Scientists believe that gossip is much more than idle chatter; it has a crucial role in our society. And that gossip has survived so long only because it is a psychologically useful tool.

Wait, what? Let's parse that further.

Gossip and Evolution

We first turn to evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar's paper "Gossip in Evolutionary Perspective." In terms of readability, this research paper is as gripping and as unputdownable as any fast-paced Stephen King novel—which is saying a lot for a published academic article.

Here's a summary:

Group Formation

Somewhere in the evolutionary cycle, our primate ancestors started to form groups, primarily as a survival mechanism. By virtue of having strength in numbers, groups provided much-needed protection when at risk of being eaten by predators.

The act of group formation made apes and the other ancestors we evolved from deeply social.

Being social meant two things—a group member had to gain the group's trust by fulfilling some obligations. In return, the group provided security to the member.

Group members maintained alliances (and built trust) in two key ways:

a) Grooming

Through grooming, i.e., literally picking nits and fleas off another group member, aka personal bonding.

Biology, in turn, encouraged this behavior through neurochemistry. Grooming released endorphins. The feel-good nature of grooming led to bonding and building trust between members, reinforcing a sense of community.

b) Cognition

Cognition, the act of reading other members' minds to know what's working and what's not, is another way to maintain alliances.

Of course, mind-reading was fairly basic in our ancestral primates. But as our brains got bigger, we got better at a cognitive understanding of another's thoughts and intentions and began to use it to help (and exploit) our fellow group citizens.

Dunbar estimates that 20% (a not-so-insignificant amount of time) was spent on grooming. This was all fine and dandy while the group sizes were small because, all said and done, grooming is a one-one activity.

Larger groups

But as we evolved into humans and our populations grew, we were forced to explore larger, newer, riskier terrain and habitats. Consequently, this also meant we needed to increase the sizes of the groups we moved in (see footnote 1)

Think of it like owning a small home initially. You don't really need a lot of time and labor for its upkeep. Let's then say you inherit a relative's large estate. Now you have acres of land to maintain and protect from unscrupulous elements. This will require you to increase the size of your support personnel.

While affording more protection to its members, a larger group also had to contend with increased responsibilities thanks to its size. To maintain the group's cohesiveness and keep it functioning well, people took turns with tasks—some foraged, a few slept, while others stood by to watch out for predators.

Not surprisingly, personal, one-on-one grooming became untenable with large group sizes because the grooming activity was both labor and time-intensive.

An alternative, more efficient form of interaction was needed.

Guess what that was?

The evolution of speech through language

Speech and Language

Speech had two key advantages.

1) It allowed people to share information over larger groups more effectively; pep talks and the feeling of trust could now be disseminated quickly to a larger group that did not merely rely on one-one methods such as grooming.

Through speech, information dissemination became effective.

I just crossed the river; there's a storm brewing on the other side – don't go there now.

Or, hey, try this new way of lighting a fire; it's easier and uses less wood.

Helpful. Factual.

2) Another great advantage was that language allowed members to share not just first-person accounts. That meant, for instance, that you didn't have to see something yourself. You could still get second-or-third hand information through language.

This, of course, was life-altering, as you can imagine. We went from being a species that relied on primary data (what we could see) to become a species that could then use secondary (unseen) information.

This also meant there was nothing stopping language from then being used to exchange more than just factual information.

We went from

"I see Pam is saying nice things about me."


"I hear Pam's dissing me behind my back. Ouch!"

And there it is—gossip!

The origin of gossip shares roots with the source of speech and language itself 

The need to belong

In the realm of group dynamics, let's not forget all groups work on the same principle of trust and obligation. The group trusts you to be a member; in turn, you need to fulfill some obligations by contributing meaningfully to the group.

You are only safe until you can keep the group's trust.

This means you need to maintain an insider status within the group by contributing meaningfully.

Scientists looked at how group members used language to maintain their insider status and came up with four broad categories.

Spoiler alert: Gossip was key!

Four categories of language use

1. Factual

These are used to transmit knowledge statements. Everything from how to sharpen your spear to how to set up a mobile hotspot.

2. Self-promotion

You boast a little about how much you know and how significant your contributions are to the group. You're trying to impress upon the group that they need you as much as you need them. This helps cement your status as an insider in the group (in other situations, it helps boost your case that you're an ideal mate!)

3. Support

You turn to the group for support. You ask hypothetical questions such as "How would you handle parental guilt when you feel your child's acting out because you've done a poor job of parenting?"

(Keyword: Hypothetical.)

4. Gossip

Finally (probably most importantly), language satisfied the function of gossip—discussions about people, their likes and dislikes.

This included a broad spectrum:

  • Embarrassing landmines to avoid: Will's wife just left him for another man—so maybe avoid marriage humor when talking to Will.
  • Aspirational: News about who from your high school made it big in the business world or who's got a sweet gig traveling the world.
  • Warning on bad apples: Beware of Sheila; she's very manipulative.

The big reveal

Out of the four functions of language explained above, at least per Dunbar, when not artificially inhibited (such as strict workplace restrictions on what you can talk about), only one-third of conversations were about informational topics (categories 1 to 3 above).

The other two-thirds, a whopping 67%, of all human conversation is about people, i.e., gossip.

Dunbar, therefore postulates that gossip, above all, is the primary focus of language. In other words, without gossip, we'd cease to exist as a society.

Here's a double-whammy. The cognitive demands of gossip— keeping track of all the comings and goings of people beyond who we see on a day-to-day basis—are why we have evolved to have such large brains (okay, some of you).

In other words:

The reason we are so proud of our big brains today is a result of needing to keep up with all the gossip in our lives

Isn't that something?

We better learn to get comfortable with gossip and see how to use it to enrich rather than aggravate our lives.

Gossip - 101

In simple terms, gossip is a form of communication aimed to influence the listener's opinion of a missing third-party.

Gossip is ubiquitous—it exists everywhere—at work, in your social life, and in the life of celebrities you admire.


The word gossip has rather innocuous origins. It originally meant interaction between "God's-sibs"— conversations between highly trustworthy sources (sibling-like or someone who is close to you in your trust circle).

Of course, it's a much more tainted word these days.

But before we delve into that, let's find out the key reasons that cause us to stop minding our own businesses and start chit-chatting about others'?

Motivation to gossip

Gossip is used to exchange information, exert social influence, or provide entertainment, but what is so compelling about it that it gets us all excited?

a. Social comparison

One of the primary motivations for gossip is to aid social comparisons through upward and downward comparisons.

Fact: We tend to compare ourselves to others to derive our sense of self-worth.

I've talked about Festinger's Social comparison theory in detail here. Through these comparisons, we aim to seek validation or perhaps even self-promote ourselves.

Remember, the social comparison theory works when we compare ourselves to those we are "like." As a result, gossip is most relevant (and that much juicier) when it's about people with whom we share things in common.

A celebrity's affair isn't bound to evoke as much interest as your neighbor's.

b. Learning

Learning happens in many ways, trial and error, direct observation, or indirect understanding (gossip).

For instance, if someone does something stupid and we hear about it, we learn quickly NOT to do the same thing.

A mom tells her five-year-old: "Do you know what happened to Joe? He didn't listen to his mom and jumped off the top of the slide. He had to go to the hospital."

Now, you can question mom's judgment here – did all of that really happen?

Did Joe actually jump off the slide? Did he just scrape himself, or did he actually need to have stitches at the hospital?

But for five-year-old Sarah listening to this, this is a scary lesson. She trusts the sender of the message (her mom), and the comparison is relevant because she plays with Joe often.

So now, though Sarah's tempted to jump off the top of the slide, she has second thoughts. Thanks in no small part to well-directed "gossip" from mom.

c. Cultural norms

Gossip helps you learn cultural norms—the dos and don'ts of what's acceptable in culture. Violation of cultural norms is amplified through gossip to serve as warning signals on what not to do.

You can observe instances of this everywhere.

In a workplace with a culture of tardiness, no one is going to bat an eyelid if you show up fifteen minutes late to a meeting. However, if you're at a workplace filled with sticklers for time, then your casual and continued tardiness is bound to make you the subject of water-cooler conversations.

In this case, even though the gossip is negative, it helps us model our behavior to fit in with cultural norms.

d. Validation

Gossip also helps when things go wrong. Knowing you're not the only one facing a problem is helpful. Shared misery, through gossip, helps alleviate the sting of failure.

Misery loves company

This is why talking about your mother-in-law may is so cathartic to many and helps you let off steam (as long as you realize gossip alone isn't going to solve relationship issues.)

e. Cements social status

Gossip helps sort the "insiders" from the "outsiders." By being privy to the gossip (either as the gossiper or listener), you cement your status as an insider.

As a social species, we avoid ostracism.

Most people will do what's needed to conform to group norms or navigate to other groups where their ideas are welcome. (The ones that say they don't care are only fooling themselves).

Functioning lone wolves are very rare in society.

f. Group protection

Gossip helps protect the group from the problem of freeloaders. Since groups dole out trust in response to obligation, people who don't fulfill their commitments but exploit the group's trust will eventually become the subject of gossip.

Language (gossip) is used to keep the group's trust as a whole is not betrayed by free riders.

We speak in metaphors and riddles because it allows us to encode secret messages about a possible free rider in our midst. For some reason, we believe this secret messaging is opaque to the one being spoken about, or it could also mean we're sending them a rather indirect message of "I'm on to you."

Good and bad gossip

While we tend to give the word gossip a bad connotation, a 2019 meta-analysis showed that most gossip is quite harmless.

Therefore, though it sounds like an oxymoron, such gossip can be categorized as "good gossip." It is not done to harm the subject but rather to educate ourselves or learn life's lessons.

Even when the story is negative—someone got caught in a fraudulent scam—the takeaways usually are around shaping our own behaviors and viewing the gossip as a cautionary tale.

That said, when gossip is used to prove one's superiority in a situation, it is not well received. This is "bad gossip" and is usually frowned upon since it impinges on group harmony.


If you've read this far and pictured all the gossip coming from an oldish woman (stereotypically ageist and sexist reference) with large ears and loose lips (metaphorically), allow me to use recent research to dispel some common stereotypes about gossip.  


Women do NOT gossip more than men.

There. I said it.

The subject of gossip has traditionally been different between men and women.

Over centuries, thanks to highly patriarchal societies, women tended to have limited interaction with the outside world, and so their conversations tended to be more about people they knew. Men's gossip tended to include a broader cross-section of society.

Of course, none of that is true anymore.


Older folks don't gossip more than younger ones. If anything, younger people tend to negatively gossip more than older people.

May be because younger people try to avoid the embarrassments and pitfalls of life and have more of a desire to be an insider and to "belong." The older you get, the less you care (so I've heard).


I know what you're thinking:

Thanks for the information overload on gossip, but is there a lesson here?

You bet there is.

Unlike reading a news article or a stranger telling you things, gossip comes from people you essentially "trust," so you tend to believe it more. But remember that gossip grows legs—it's not just a factual retelling of circumstances but an opinion-added recollection.

Most of us find people and their likes and dislikes far more fascinating than just ideas or concepts. Stories sell ideas. Personal, relatable stories sell ideas even better.

Recognizing that gossip is a fact of our existence helps us understand and model our own behaviors not to be the subject of negative gossip.

Here's a glass-half-full view: Indulging in gossip in itself means you have a trustworthy relationship with another human being! So, there's a win, for starters.

Go on, spill the tea. But before you throw stones, check to see that you're not in a glass house yourself.

She doesn't gossip! She's simply someone who shares her opinion freely about other people's life choices

PS: If you're curious, take the "Tendency to gossip" questionnaire on the internet to know where you stand—whether you're a provider or consumer of gossip.

PPS: I won't tell anyone.


Dunbar RIM. Gossip in Evolutionary Perspective. Review of General Psychology. 2004;8(2):100-110. doi:10.1037/1089-2680.8.2.100

Robbins ML, Karan A. Who Gossips and How in Everyday Life? Social Psychological and Personality Science. 2020;11(2):185-195. doi:10.1177/1948550619837000

Festinger, L. (1954). A theory of social comparison processes. Human Relations,

Baumeister RF, Zhang L, Vohs KD. Gossip as Cultural Learning. Review of General Psychology. 2004;8(2):111-121. doi:10.1037/1089-2680.8.2.111

Wert SR, Salovey P. A Social Comparison Account of Gossip. Review of General Psychology. 2004;8(2):122-137. doi:10.1037/1089-2680.8.2.122

Arluke, A., Levin, J. (2013). Gossip: The Inside Scoop. Germany: Springer US.

Footnote 1: Dunbar came up with the number of 150—for how many people you can truly claim to be within your "network." He reckons, beyond 150, is an untenable number for human networks. This is a subject for another discussion, especially in the context of social media.



  • Lol…very interesting read… So Gossip isn’t bad after all… Thanks for not making us look bad and we can be proud that we love gupshup… 😀😃🙂🙃😊😇

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