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Gossip: Evolutionary Necessity? New Study Suggests Yes

First Posted: 10/19/2011 3:23 pm EDT Updated: 12/19/2011 5:12 am EST

A new study found that gossip makes up 80 percent of our conversations, and CBS claims gossip is a $3 billion a year business. But who’s doing all the talking? And is there an evolutionary explanation for why we want the juicy details of celebrities and friends’ lives, or are we all just shallow and hungry for the dirt on our neighbors?

John L. Locke, author of “Eavesdropping: An Intimate History” and "Duels and Duets: Why Men and Women Talk So Differently" told The Early Show this morning that there may be an evolutionary reason why humans gossip:

If there are people that are being promiscuous or they do things that don’t reflect well on the women of the community, then women have a perfectly good right to try to police the neighborhood, and that’s frequently what they are doing when they gossip.

Dr. Nicholas Emler, the author of the gossip study, calls the practice “essential,” and told the British Science Festival: “Language evolved to allow us to gossip and develop more complex societies … In fact it is gossip that sets us apart from other animals. It is fundamental to being human. It allows us to know about people that we have never met.”

Bonnie Fuller, editor in chief of HollywoodLife.com, has argued that “Gossip is in our DNA.” She told CBS News, “When we are sharing gossip, we are really sharing information,” arguing that when we look at celebrity love lives or discuss the love lives of our friends, we are using their examples in an attempt to figure out what to do in our own lives.

Dr. Michelle Callahan, a contributor to Women’s Health, disagrees: “We put too much weight on the biological and we forget the cultural and social norms we are buying into here. It’s one thing to share information ... it’s another thing to be snarky, nosy, really attacking the person you are talking out,” she told CBS. It’s important to differentiate between bonding and bullying, sharing information and spreading misinformation.

But while we often think of gossip as tearing friendships asunder (see: “Gossip Girl”), gossip can also build stronger bonds between friends: “If you give out personal information, you elicit other personal information, which gives you something to share,” says Fuller. Callahan also pointed out to CBS that gossip is used to build status and alliances; in saying “you and I are not like that” -- in judging others, we build up ourselves.

A Dutch study on gossiping in the workplace supports Callahan’s claim. It found that employees who gossip with a few select friends become closer throughout the year, though when you gossip with too many different people, your popularity goes down and you are trusted less.

And contrary to stereotype, gossip isn’t exclusive to women. Emler’s study found that men are more likely than women to discuss the details of others’ private lives.

The difference? According to Callahan, “When women do it, they call it gossip. When men do it, they call it networking.”

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Filed by Jessica Pearce Rotondi  |