Sept. 4, 2000 -- Whenever Jean Bennett and her co-workers get together, the talk turns invariably in the direction of dish. "You know, I shouldn't be telling you this," says Bennett, a 42-year-old Southern California sales representative, who asked that her real name not be used for this story. "But the boss has been taking more and more long weekends, and we've all seen her put away three or four margaritas at parties."
Her friend jumps boldly into the ring. "No wonder she's never around when we need her. I wonder how long before there's a new name on her door..."
While we may look askance at Bennett's pastime, most of us have from time to time taken pleasure in dissecting the affairs of others. Gossip is hard to resist.
Some scientists now speculate that we're powerfully drawn to gossip because it's in our very genes. A robust round of gossip may be good for us, they say; it may even ensure that we and our offspring survive.
Gossip: The Social Tie That Binds
As you might suspect, the genetic explanation comes from evolutionary psychologists, who explain human behavior according to its survival benefits. The theory -- as with most evolutionary theories -- starts with the apes. Our primate ancestors cemented ties within their small social groups through the ritual of grooming, says Robin Dunbar, a University of Liverpool psychology professor and the author of Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language.
For as much as 20% of every day, our monkey kin sat around combing each other's coats as a means of maintaining alliances. But when humans entered the picture and clans became larger, grooming was no longer a useful social adhesive. It just took too much time to keep up with a hundred or more pals via literal nit-picking.
The problem then arose: How to keep clans close with as little effort as possible?
Through gossip. Gossip is essentially vocal grooming, Dunbar says; it's a means of maintaining order in larger groups. By schmoozing, you can maintain ties with several people at once, suss out your place in the larger group, keep tabs on who's in power, and correct your perspective on social matters. In the modern jungle, these matters are as vital as knowing where to find the thickest grove of bananas.
Social Ties Bring Health Benefits
When an evolutionary psychologist overhears a conversation like Jean Bennett's, this is what he or she sees: Two primates reaffirming their loyalty to each other and trading essential information (Bennett needs to know if her boss is on the way out). At the same time, they're reaping a pleasant stress-reduction bonus. By bonding over their boss, they're building a closer social network, and numerous studies show that people with close social networks live longer, healthier lives. Not only are they less prone to depression, they are also less likely to die of heart disease, according to a study by Harvard researchers published in the June 1996 issue of the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.
The calming benefit has survival value, but the larger evolutionary payoff comes in the event of a crisis. If a saber-toothed tiger attacked, our ancestors could count on the assistance of their grooming partners. If Bennett has a blowup with her margarita-swigging manager, the talking she's done with her co-workers might make them more likely to support her, perhaps making her survival in the workplace more likely.
But gossip doesn't always result in reduced stress, comradely feelings, and increased odds for thriving in society. Some types of scuttlebutt actually injure the tattler.
The Harmful Side of Gossip
Consider, for instance, another of Jean Bennett's gossip sessions. The subject this time is Bennett's favorite cousin's poor taste in spouses. Now Bennett is not trying to bond with others or fishing for perspective. The sole (though unspoken) purpose is to affirm that Bennett has better judgment than her cousin.
Of course, it's not lost on Bennett that if she talks this way about her beloved relative, others might talk this way about her. In the end, that gossip-fest leaves her feeling so rotten that she gets a stomachache and tosses and turns all night (see Stop Spreading the News!Stop Spreading the News!). All of the side effects Bennett experiences -- hostility, cynicism, social isolation -- are risk factors shown over years of research to increase people's chances of heart disease and premature mortality.
How could an evolutionary strategy designed to keep us alive also have toxic effects?
The answer lies in understanding that any evolutionary adaptation can get out of hand. Nature simply grants us survival strategies; it doesn't dictate how we use them. "Once you have these social skills in place, it's a very short step to going from positive to negative," says psychologist Dunbar.
Our chit-chat often takes on a harsh edge. Sometimes we don't just talk about who got divorced, but why -- the more scandalous the reason the better. And we pay the price in hostility.
"Human dialogue can be a great healer or a great destroyer," says psychologist James Lynch, PhD, author of The Broken Heart. "Gossip might temporarily bind people and relieve isolation, but it can lead to more isolation later on."
In his book, first published in 1977, Lynch pioneered the notion that loneliness contributes to many causes of premature death, especially heart disease. His new book, The Cry Unheard, says that much loneliness is caused by dysfunctional patterns of communication -- including the tendency to trash friends and colleagues behind their backs.
The antidote? Learning to talk to each other in heartfelt ways, and unlearning styles of communicating that hurt or distance others. These are skills Lynch and staff teach at Lynch's Life Care Health Center in Baltimore.
After suffering the downside of edgy gossip, Bennett found her own method for moderating her habit. These days, when the subject of her cousin's dubious taste in men comes up, she simply says, "I just don't want to get into it."