By Mandy Brownholtz of The NY Times. Excerpts:
"gossip helped early Homo sapiens form larger and more stable bands."
"idea from the anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who theorized in his 1998 book “Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language” that language — and by extension, gossip — replaced grooming, a social bonding practice still seen among our primate cousins.
In other words, humans needed something that would help them keep up-to-date with friends and family as they spread out across distances, and networks of Homo sapiens were becoming too large for everyone to effectively groom everyone else.
Or, to put it another way, humans evolved to gossip."
"Gossip’s ability to drive “vicarious learning” and facilitate “social connection” was the subject of a recent study by scientists at Dartmouth’s Computational Social Affective Neuroscience Laboratory, published in April.
"Luke Chang, an assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences and director at the lab, explained that he and his co-researcher, Eshin Jolly, dug into the topic because gossip is ubiquitous but not well-studied. (They define gossip as communication about social topics involving self-disclosure and discussions about others.)"
"He and Mr. Jolly, a postdoctoral researcher, created a game where individuals received small amounts of money and were divided into groups of six. Each round, an individual could choose to keep the money or put it into a pot, benefiting everyone. To replicate the societal pressures of gossip, they gave the players the option to exchange private communications, which inevitably turned into a way for people to size up who was hoarding or who was contributing. “It’s like being in a neighborhood where everybody is affected by everyone else’s actions, but you don’t get to actually see what people are doing all the time,” Mr. Jolly said. “We tend to find that in certain circumstances where you can’t see what everybody’s doing, the discussions we have tend to be more about what other people are doing.”
"What made this gossip useful — and not just fun and petty — was that it allowed a group of people to get on the same page organically. It facilitated learning from others without direct observation. It helped strangers build connections. It increased cooperation by aligning individuals on acceptable behavior.
“Our work suggests that there’s a lot more richness there than we’re willing to think about,” Mr. Jolly said. “When I’m talking with you about somebody, or something I saw, even if it’s negative or positive, it’s this idea that we’ve decided to temperature check how we feel about the social world at large. ‘So and so did this, so what does that mean? Do you think it’s OK too?’”"
"there are also OK ways to gossip. One of those is gossiping about celebrities, or powerful people that you don’t know."
"Mr. Jolly and Mr. Chang determined in their study that gossip’s beneficial societal function comes from its ability to make things clearer and to help people better understand their environment. If you are actively sabotaging that, don’t pass it on."