Before the Jan. 11 issue of People appeared on shelves, the magazine leaked word that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie were expecting their first child. Within minutes, the story was posted on scores of Web sites and blogs, and talking heads and disc jockeys around the world were discussing the disclosure.
But nearly everyone who read and spread the revelation had never met either Pitt or Jolie. In fact, the pregnancy had no effect on their lives. So why did they care?
Social instinct, suggests research by Frank McAndrew, PhD, an applied social psychology professor at Knox College. Our interest in celebrity gossip-as well as dirt on our family, friends and acquaintances-may be a byproduct of our evolutionary past, McAndrew says. Natural selection, he theorizes, pressured people to learn as much as possible about the people in their social network-be they an authority figure, potential romantic partner, teacher, political ally or enemy. Knowing about other group members helped people eschew risky alliances, by informing them, for instance, which group member might double-cross them.
"If you weren't curious about others, you'd pay the consequences," McAndrew says.
In the process, gossiping also helped facilitate bonds by showing others we trust them enough to share information. Throughout most of human history, McAndrew explains, humans not only had to cooperate with a social network of about 200 people for food and protection, they also had to compete with those same in-group members for the most desirable mates. His research about the appeal of gossip is part of a growing body of literature indicating that we're drawn to gossip because it keeps us informed about the lives of the people in our social circle: That social circle is now much bigger, and so less tied to our survival, but the instinct to gossip is just as strong.
Because we see and hear celebrities' images and voices on television, radio and magazines, we gossip about them as if they are members of our social network, McAndrew says.
"Gossip is like chocolate," says psychologist Charlotte DeBacker, PhD, a University of Santa Barbara postdoctoral fellow and author of the forthcoming Dutch-language book, "Gossip: Why Gossip Can Be Healthy" (MOM/Unieboek, 2006).
Humans are drawn to fatty, sweet foods like chocolate because such high-calorie foods were once our lifeblood in lean times. As a result, people crave those foods-even when they are not in dire need of calories. Likewise, the pleasure that people derive from gossip can create a tendency to "dish dirt"-even when the subject matter doesn't affect our lives, such as with celebrity gossip, or when divulging information could be more risky, such as at work, says DeBacker.
Picking nits, telling stories
By nature, humans are chatterers, says psychologist Robin Dunbar, PhD, a University of Liverpool psychology professor and author of the book, "Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language" (Harvard University Press, 1998). He suggests that gossip is the human version of social grooming-a behavior common among other social primates in which one ape or monkey strokes the fur and picks fleas and ticks from the coat of another ape or monkey to strengthen group ties. Like social grooming, which helps other primates form alliances based on codependence, gossip helps humans develop trusting relationships and foster social bonds.
Without that instinct to share the latest on a friend, peer or family member, there would be no sophisticated society, Dunbar claims, suggesting that societies depend on the individual's ability to rely on others and understand something of the workings of another's mind.
To put his ideas to the test, Dunbar conducted a number of observational studies of the content of people's conversations in public places, such as shopping malls, in an article published in Human Nature (Vol. 8, No. 3, pages 231-246). The observers classified conversations according to such broad categories as politics, sports, technical information and social exchanges. The social category covered anything that involved explicitly social activities, personal relationships and personal likes and dislikes. Repeating the study in numerous locations, Dunbar consistently found that social topics, which he broadly defines as gossip, account for nearly 65 percent of speaking time, with little variation due to age or gender.
In a follow-up study published in the same article, Dunbar and his colleagues examined the topics within that social banter by grouping the discussions into four categories: whether people were keeping track of other individuals in their social network; bragging about themselves as a romantic partner, friend or ally; seeking advice; or condemning slackers or free loaders. He found that the first two topics dominated conversations, suggesting that the exchange of social information may be one of the primary functions of language.
As such, Dunbar agrees with McAndrew and DeBacker's suggestions that the pleasure we derive from gossip is a side effect of an evolutionary pull to gain knowledge about one's group.
"Language evolved for social purposes, not spreading technical information like whether it will rain or how to get from New York City to Washington, D.C.," he says. "Knowledge of the social world has a much deeper purpose.…It's not just the fact that I saw Jimmy kiss Penelope, but how that incident relates to me and the group."
One reason that gossip may be universal is that talking about others gives us something to talk about, says psychologist Sarah Wert, PhD, a visiting assistant professor at Trinity College and research associate at Yale University.
"We don't tend to like people that don't have anything to talk about," she says. "[Talking about other] people gives us an infinite source of conversational material."
In turn, sharing that material may help people connect with someone else and forge social bonds, says Wert.
"Trading information and opinions carries with it liability and puts you out on a limb," she says. "It's not trivial. It carries with it trust and intimacy."
However, gossip is also often facilitated by self-motivation, Wert adds, suggesting in a Review of General Psychology article (Vol. 8, No. 2, pages 122-137) that all gossip involves some form of social comparison.
In the article, Wert notes that comparing oneself to less-skilled or lower-status people can help bolster self-esteem. Meanwhile, gossiping about higher-status people-whether that person is a boss or celebrity-can help us obtain information that will help us compete with those of higher status while also denigrating them. For instance, co-workers who view each other as rivals may use gossip to obtain information about the other's quality of work while also derogating the other in hopes of enhancing their own status.
McAndrew agrees, noting that people are most interested in gossip about people around their own age and typically of the same gender-findings he published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology (Vol. 32, No. 1, pages 1-20). The reason, McAndrew suggests, is that we're drawn to information or gossip that we can use against our rivals for our personal gain. As such, we crave information about those higher in status than us while also paying note to those beneath us in status that we fear are gaining on us.
"If a caveman down at the bottom rungs of the group's hierarchy learns that the No. 1 caveman dragged a mastodon home, he wouldn't be interested in the information because he couldn't use it to his advantage," he says. "But if the No. 1 caveman had a falling out with one of his wives, he'd be real interested in the information because it is potentially useful."
In his study, McAndrew had 128 people ranging 17 to 62 years old rank their interest in 12 tabloid stories about celebrities differing in age and gender. He found that the under-30 group was more interested in younger celebrities and over-30 participants were most interested in middle-age celebrities. Neither group had a strong interest in celebrities much older than themselves.
In a follow-up study published in the same article, 83 17 to 22 year old undergraduates ranked their interest and their likelihood of spreading gossip about male and female professors, relatives, friends, acquaintances or strangers based on 12 different scenarios, such as an individual's drug abuse, promiscuity or academic cheating. He found that the participants were most interested and most likely to pass on damaging, negative news about nonallies and positive news about allies, suggesting that gossip is an effective means of status enhancement.
As such, whether gossip is spread depends wholly on context, McAndrew suggests.
As with chimpanzees' social grooming, McAndrew explains, spreading good news about our friends and damaging news about our enemies can make the group feel good, while also helping to buttress group goals.
"Gossip is an important bonder," he says. "By sharing information we develop sense of trust and intimacy."