Ever been in a situation where you’ve heard something about another person that is just too good not to share? Maybe you overheard a confidential conversation happening between managers in the corridor at work, or saw Stacey getting her flirt on with Becky’s ex at the bar on Saturday night. You feel a small rush of anxiety induced adrenaline at the thought of passing on the news, a small shred of doubt. It’s those damn morals getting in the way again. But it’s just too good, too juicy, and the drive to tell your friends overcomes that small inkling of guilt.
This is the dilemma we face when we come across some great gossip. To share or not to share. For most of us, gossip is filled with negative connotations. To be described as a “gossip” gives the impression of a person with too much time on their hands, someone with a malicious streak who delights in the failings of others. But still, whether we would admit to it or not, our eyes light up when we hear the word. This is because gossip is a trait that is deeply rooted in the human psyche. A trait that is surprisingly human.
In the animal kingdom, gossip has not yet been found to exist. This is not so much a case of our animal friends taking the moral high ground and choosing to opt out of such lowly behaviour. Instead, it’s to do with the fact that the majority of animal species lack the key element needed to gossip – complex language.
Although animals are able to communicate through a range of innate noises and signals, only a handful of species show signs of communicating through learnt language. One of these species is the bottlenose dolphin, who communicate through a vibrant array of clicks and whistles. Dolphins have their own names, known as signature whistles, with researchers recording individuals yelling out their names when swimming past other pods of dolphins, as a way of saying “Hey! Remember me?” Young male dolphins that form close alliances are also known to morph their names together into similar whistles, creating nicknames that let everyone know about their bromance.
Another species that display complex language is the parrotlet, an adorably tiny species of parrot endemic to South America. They also have names, similar to the names of their family members, which they use to introduce themselves to new peers. Researchers also believe that chimpanzees and other apes might form complex languages that differ depending on their region and group. When chimpanzees were introduced to another group at Edinburgh Zoo, the new chimps quickly adopted a different way of speaking so as to fit in.
So if these species are known to have complex language skills, why do they not gossip?
Well, this isn’t exactly known. During observations and controlled experiments, it has been found that these species are able to recall names of objects and other animals without them being present at the time. However, outside of these experiments they seem to only bring up other animals names when the individual is also present. To put it simply, these animals do not talk about other animals unless they are communicating directly to them.
Therefore, talking about people when they are not present is a uniquely human characteristic.
And as it turns out, we do it a lot! Current research shows that a massive eighty percent of casual chat revolves around talking about other people, and despite what Hollywood shows us, men are twice as likely to gossip than women. Although that may sound extreme, it’s important to note that only around five percent of gossip is malicious, with most of it just conveying information about other people.
So why is it that we gossip so much? And how did it all begin?
Like most of our behaviour, we can look to our ancestors for the answers. In this case, there are several theories floating round, but most suggest that gossip was vital to our survival. In the move from forest dwelling to open plain hunting, the ability to be able to communicate and discuss various group members roles was vital in an efficient and safe hunt. Then, with the discovery of fire, talking about other people grew from strategy talk to the sharing of more interesting information about people. Humans no longer had to sleep in the dead of night to avoid predators, but could instead sit around a campfire and unwind with story telling and the sharing of newfound gossip. This in turn led to stronger social bonds between group members, in the same way you can make friends through bonding over a shared enemy in today’s time.
However, as humans started to form larger and more complex societies, gossip became more crucial. Unlike before, when humans lived in smaller groups, it was now almost impossible to know all of your neighbours. How were you supposed to know if the person who moved into the hut near you was a good or a bad person? That’s where gossip came in, as it is a quick and efficient way to spread the news if someone was a thief, a cheater, a freeloader, or a threat to your well being.
In those early days, the people who cared about other peoples business came out on top, and as a species we evolved to use information about other people as a survival tool. So much so that today, scientists have discovered that it actually changes our brains. When we hear negative gossip about a person, it alters the way our visual system responds to their face. Therefore, if bad news spreads about you, whether or not it’s true or false, your image could forever be tarnished in somebody else’s eyes.
Anyway, that’s the latest news on gossip. Whether you spread it or not, that’s up to you.
You know you love me. xoxo, Gossip Girl.