Brangelina are on the rocks after Jen phones Brad...Katie and Tom are planning for a second baby... Britney Spears: Will she respect her parents' wishes and return to rehab? If you pay attention to the tabloid and celebrity news magazine headlines, you'll know that we rely on gossip to keep tabs on the latest events in the lives of celebrities...its also how we sometimes keep up to date on the lives of our own friends.

Now I'm sure you would probably feel hard-pressed to say you never talked about other people, as many scientists believe this phenomenon of gossip actually has biological and evolutionary roots? Here's the scoop...

Whether positive or negative, gossip is known as "third party communication about social topics". Several scientific studies have suggested many functions of gossip that are probably understood and common-sense-like to you on a daily basis.

Did You Know?
The word "gossip" originates from god-si - the godparent of one's child or parent of one's godchildren. It refers to a relationship of close friendship.

One of the most well-known theories of gossip - the social grooming (or bonding) hypothesis - says that gossip acts as a means for social bonding by increasing the number of people that interact with each other.

Social grooming

This social grooming hypothesis tries to explain why language evolved in the first place, and so accounting for the occurrence of gossip. But to understand this theory, we first need to know what social grooming refers to.

Grooming is a common practice among primates, in which they spend hours every day cleaning and beautifying each other (e.g. combing through fur). The frequency of this grooming has been shown to be a good measure of the social bond between them, with more grooming indicating a closer bond.

The time required for social grooming however, is very long. So, the social grooming hypothesis states that language evolved among humans to replace social grooming because grooming requires unrealistic time demands among group members.

What's the point?

Some say that gossip can boost a person's own reputation by ruining the reputation of others'. For example, have you ever caught yourself speaking badly about someone just to highlight yourself? If not, great, but if you have, that's okay too...sort of — as long as you try to be aware of it and stop! While you may get temporary relief of gossiping about other people, you may actually be hurting yourself in the long run.

Did You Know?
One comic described gossip as "something that goes in one ear, out the other, and over the back fence."

The Power of Gossip on Decision Making

Could it be that humans base their decisions about other people on gossip, regardless of the truth of the actual gossip? At least one scientific team would have you believe this. In this study, participants played a computer game in which they had the option during each round to give some of their money to their playing partners. Players were instructed to write notes, either positive or negative, about how their partners played.

These notes (ie the gossip) had an impact on whether players would give money to players in future rounds. Players were more inclined to reward other players who were described as generous and were more likely to hold back on those described negatively. Interestingly, this effect was still observed even when the players observed for themselves that gossip was in fact untrue. But the effect of the gossip still had a huge influence on the players' decisions!

So, be leery of whether there's fact to the rumors be spread around, whether it be reading the supermarket tabloid headlines, hearing who's got a crush on who in your class or a mean rumor about someone else in your school. Don't let gossip bear any effect on your perception of others. Get the facts and you make the final call!

Learn More!

Dunbar, RIM. (1996). Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language (Faber & Faber, London).

Dunbar, RIM. (2004). Rev. Gen. Psychol 8: 100-110.

Emler, N. (2001).The New Handbook of Language and Social Psychology, eds WP Robinson & H Giles (Wiley, Chichester, UK).

Emler, N. (1990). European Review of Social Psychology, eds W Strobes & M Hewstone (Wiley, Chichester, UK), Vol 1, pp 171-193.

Sommerfeld, RD, Krambeck, H-J, Semmann, D & Milinski, M. (2007). PNAS 104: 17435-17440.

Teen Advice

CBC: Gossip Study

New York Times: Gossip

University of Hawaii: Evolutions of the Human Language:

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