Forged from fragments of private disclosures, invidious rumors, and personal inventions, gossip is a weapon often wielded to wound an absent other. In a brilliant but troubling short story by William Faulkner—“Dry September”—it even leads to the tragic murder of an innocent man. In short, gossip is cheap, tawdry, and often hurtful. And yet, when I log into my email account and spy a seductive headline about Kim Kardashian’s tumultuous romances or Miley Cyrus’s scandalous performance, I furtively click the link and eagerly read like a drunk greedily gulping gin from a hidden flask. Of course, my brain, disciplined by years of self-esteem preserving distortions, quickly exculpates me for my sin. I read such stories ironically—I am patently better than the material and read only to observe how vapid other humans can be. Poke this thin cognitive veneer and the ugly truth pours out like saw dust: I am, like all of us, compelled to absorb gossip.
We are all addicted to gossip, not because we are malevolent, but because we are designed to desire and disseminate information about others. But why should we so feverishly desire such information and so happily promulgate it despite often explicitly denouncing such behaviors? Several reasonable evolutionary hypotheses have been forwarded to explain our propensity for gossip. These are not mutually exclusive. First, it has been argued that gossip is a social regulation mechanism (Barkow, 1992; Merry, 1984). That is, gossip is a cudgel that smites those who violate important social norms. If Sally sleeps with a married and man and no one cares, her transgression will go unpunished. However if people revel in the scandal and constantly chatter about it, news of her transgression will quickly spread and she will suffer reputational damage. Second, it has been argued that gossip is a way to enhance one’s own status and/or diminish another’s status (McAndrew & Milenkovic, 2002; McAndrew, Bell, & Garcia, 2007). For example, a gossiper might proudly broadcast his or her triumphs while concomitantly trumpeting the colossal failures of his or her rivals.
Evidence supports both positions. In support of the first, researchers have noted that gossip is often about important violations of social mores or group norms (Barkow, 1992). People do not generally gossip about trifles such as the color of Sally’s favorite plates or the height of Steve’s new lamp. Upon the other hand, people inveterately gossip about the sexual behavior of those around them, especially if such sexual behavior is scandalous and violates social expectations. Put simply, Tom’s sexual encounter with his wife isn’t gossip worthy; however, his sexual encounter with his married dental hygienist is. In support of the second, researchers have noted that positive information is disseminated about friends and allies, where as negative information is disseminated about enemies and rivals. People do not generally gossip about their spouses’ failures, or their own shortcomings. Upon the other hand, people gossip constantly about their spouses’ triumphs and their own heroic successes.
But what about a ubiquitous form of gossip in modern society: gossip about celebrities? Why should we care at all about people whom we will never meet? Kim Kardashian may or may not have been abducted by a secret Russian paramilitary force, but either way the fact is unlikely to impact our lives. We do not fraternize with her or her friends and do not count on either for social support. And yet, judging from the prodigious amount of magazine covers dedicated to Kim, we certainly do care about her. A simple byproduct explanation might go like this. Kim possesses social status and her life is constantly broadcast into our living rooms; therefore, our brains treats her as if she were important to our everyday lives because high status people were important to our ancestors and were not abstractions created by a powerful and exquisitely complicated media machine. I think this is partially correct. But I would like to add another component.
Social scientists have noted that status is contagious. People who associate with high status people absorb some of the status spillover, and people who associate with low status people are stained by that same spillover (Benoit-Smullyan, 1944; Winegard, Winegard, & Geary, 2013). Personal information is a means of publicly displaying a relationship with a person or persons. That is, if I know something personal about Kanye West, it might seem that I have personal access to his life—or that I associate with him. In our ancestral past, this heuristic would have been useful. Today, it is often useless. However, like our sweet tooth, it persists and is carefully exploited by marketers and magazine corporations. It also leads to humorous conversations about celebrities and their foibles and idiosyncrasies. We often act as if we know Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt simply because some magazine has disclosed an (possibly) invented scene from their lives. “I think Brad was just bored with Jennifer. He needs to be challenged.” This possibly explains why people who possess private information about celebrities are accorded a certain kind of status. (One, that it must be noted, is often textured with moral opprobrium).
What practical advice can be drawn from this? The flourishing celebrity-gossip industry is not going to perish anytime soon. And it may be more of a nuisance than anything, so we will all have to tolerate it, convincing ourselves that when we read about Tom Cruise’s Scientology conversion, we are doing so ironically. Gossip on the more local level, however, remains a deleterious and ubiquitous phenomenon. Here, we need to treat our propensity as a full-blown addiction, striving not to quell it, but to control it, discipline it, channel it. Some fraction of this species of gossip is not necessarily bad. It is, after all, important to regulate social behavior. But much of it is petty and hurtful. The next time we feel tempted to gossip, we should contemplate how small the reward is and how large the possible punishment to an absent other. Failing at this, perhaps we should slake our rapacious desire for gossip by reading about Kim Kardashian’s baby.