The virtues of gossip

This article was published in Le Monde on Friday and was interesting enough for me to translate.  Whilst it doesn’t try to cover all of the aspects of an anthropological discussion of gossip [it doesn’t go anywhere near the negative and repressive aspects], it does provide some interesting ideas. I am particularly thrilled by the idea that gossip is the human equivalent of chimpanzees grooming and picking the fleas off one another.

The translation is mine, so apologies for an inaccuracies and clumsiness.

The article was written by Angela Sirigu, a neuroscientist and director of research at the Centre of Cognitive Neuroscience in Lyon.

Among human exchanges gossip is one of the most widespread methods for passing on information about social character.  Although it can, at first, appear to be a shallow and futile activity the sharing of opinions on the actions and gestures of others contributes to the running of social life in an efficient manner and at essentially no cost.  Our appetite for gossip and its impact has captured the interest of researchers from various fields such as psychology, anthropology and biomathematics.  The main idea is that gossip contributes to maintaining the cohesion of the group through its influence on the reputation of the group’s members.

For Mathew Feinberg, of the University of California at Berkeley, gossip acts as a “prosocial” activity which encourages cooperation and discourages transgression.  Sharing negative information about a third person can have a dissuasive effect on potentially deviant behaviour with the ultimate goal of protecting the group.  Thus, gossip represents a form of altruistic punishment – in the sense that it does not provide a direct benefit to those that gossip – that it allows the group to silently exercise strong social control.  Martin Nowak from the University of Harvard models the different forms of exchange at a large scale in distinguishing direct and indirect mechanisms of social reciprocity to provide a picture of barter and money in the economic sphere.  According to him, we can decide to cooperate with an individual or not depending on their behaviour towards us but also depending on the behaviour towards the other members of the group.  Reputation is part of the individual’s social capital and gossip is the currency of exchange.

So where does our taste for gossip come from?  What need is satisfied by the peddling of gossip? The impact of social information on our immediate perceptions is impressive. In an article recently published in the magazine Science, Eric Anderson from Northeastern University in Boston reports the use of a paradigm of binocular rivalry which permits two images, for example a house and a face, to be shown simultaneously, one to the right eye and the other to the left.  The results show that a face previously linked with some negative gossip is recognised more quickly than the house and stays in the memory for a long time.  The effect is not found where a face has been associated with neutral information.

Rubin Dunbar, an anthropologist at the University of Oxford, was recently questioned on the origins of human language and advanced an evolutionary hypothesis of gossip.  He suggests that it derives from the reciprocal cleaning and grooming behaviours found among monkeys.  This activity serves to link the group’s members while contributing to reducing stress and providing well-being, both to the giver and the receiver, as can be seen in cortisol levels and in the secretion of endorphins.  There is therefore a clear driver for this type of social closeness.  Gossip fulfils the same function in human groups in that it allows us to remain close to others while maintaining the rules related to physical distance.  Evolution may have favoured the development of gossip by giving a reproductive advantage to those individuals who contribute to the strengthening of their social group.  We no longer await the discovery of the gossip gene and the controller of rumour!


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