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We are fascinated by gossip, but that might not necessarily be a bad thing, many experts believe.
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updated 10/7/2008 8:24:36 AM ET 2008-10-07T12:24:36

My office is a 10-minute walk from where I live, and most mornings, I spend that time on the phone chatting with one of my friends. Our topics vary in significance — a friend may have gotten pregnant, a new job, or some new shoes. Sometimes we are kind, generous, forgiving. ("Didn't so-and-so look pretty last night?") Other times — I'm ashamed to admit — we are less so.

We gossip about people we know, but we also gossip about the strangers whose pictures we see so often that we feel we do. ("Oh, that poor Amy Winehouse," we might say, or, "How much do you think Sarah Jessica works out, really?") There is a time for discussing serious things, but these morning chats aren't it. They're both grounding and distracting, a perfect means of defusing the little panic that accompanies the start of a day at work.

We, as a culture, are fascinated by gossip at the moment — the celebrity variety in particular. We devour tabloids, television shows, Web sites — I recently saw one site devoted to celebrities chewing and could only imagine what I'd find next: Check it out!

Famous people who breathe! And then there's the fascination with the fascination: all the discussion of why we're so interested in who forgot her underpants or who's got trans fats in her grocery cart at the West Hollywood Bristol Farms. Discussions of our gossip love tend to suggest a national imagination gone dull, as if our fixation on Nicole Richie's weight and Jennifer Aniston's relationships indicates some sort of intellectual apocalypse.

But contrary to the typical defenses of our chatty-Cathy behavior — gossip is an easy, soothing distraction from our complicated world — research suggests that our love of juice has less to do with the zeitgeist and more to do with the way we're wired.

Every anthropologist knows that a group of primates will groom one another. But Robin Dunbar, a professor of evolutionary anthropology at the University of Oxford, detailed in his book "Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language" (Harvard University Press) his discovery that a group capable of language (that is, humans) will engage in idle chatter about other members of the group. This, Dunbar posits, is progress.

And he, along with many other experts, believes this natural proclivity to gab is not necessarily a bad thing. "Gossip is a tool for social cohesion," Dunbar says. In fact, he suggests in his book that language actually evolved to allow us to gossip — in order to form tight social networks. Even though gossip has negative connotations (the work of small, unbusy minds, or of shrews), "gossip can be very positive," says Eric K. Foster, a social psychologist in Philadelphia and a study director at Temple University. A few years ago, he completed a comprehensive review of the existing research on gossip (there's more than you'd think). He found that "exchanging gossip can cement the social network," he says. As long as it's not mean-spirited — which Foster stresses is not positive — "it's very beneficial for those doing the exchanging."

Social bonding
Foster, like Dunbar, examined the origins of gossip. "Some experts believe there is an evolutionary element to gossip," he says. Essentially, way back when we were walking across the savannah, it was important to pick up on facts that would ensure our survival. The people who had more resources became the objects of interest, Foster says, because they were most likely to survive. "There are social, material, and psychological advantages to knowing about those who hold resources," he says. "Who is reliable? Who is generous? How do they behave? We learn what to believe and how to behave from gossip."

It's much like how we want to know about modern celebrities today. Celebrities may not be more inclined to survive than the rest of us — but they most definitely have more access to resources, and that, it seems, makes them interesting enough. The drive to gossip about friends can be explained in this evolutionary context as well. Foster points out that we often gossip about the people we look up to — or are secretly jealous of.

Idle talk is also a way to enforce social codes of behavior. "Gossip can keep people in line and make them do the right thing," says Frank McAndrew, a professor of psychology at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. "If people know that their reputations will be damaged by gossip if they are not pulling their share of the work or if they are cheating others in some way, they may be less likely to do these bad things." Gossip can make people more likely to do good things, as well. A new study from Queen's University Belfast in Northern Ireland found that people were more generous in giving away money when they were aware that people they knew would be told how much they gave.

Our desire to gossip may also derive from our need to belong: Engaging in the exchange of information — gossip — can be evidence of membership in a group. John Beard Haviland, professor of anthropology at the University of California, San Diego, observed a small village in Mexico for his 1977 book "Gossip, Reputation, and Knowledge" in Zinacantan (University of Chicago Press). "It takes a certain kind of insider knowledge to be able to gossip," Haviland says. And the extent to which you can gossip — and find people to gossip with — is evidence that you have acquired that insider knowledge, as well as an understanding of a community's values and standards, he says.

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But you don't have to visit a remote village to realize how cozy gossip can make you feel. At a recent dinner with a co-worker, I found myself kind of bored, a little detached. Until, that is, we started discussing a mutual acquaintance. We weren't saying anything bad (quite the contrary, in fact), but understanding that this colleague shared my opinion of a third party made me feel instantly closer to her. "When you share gossip with someone, you are telling that person you trust them with sensitive information," McAndrew says. "This makes it more likely that they, in turn, will share sensitive information with you, creating a stronger bond." I often feel a sense of complicity when gossiping with someone. And, of course, whispering anything makes it seem illicit and appealing.

Helpful or harmful?
Not all gossip is necessarily of the negative "Well, hasn't she gotten plump" variety; it can even be helpful. There are people to whom I've given second chances after hearing something sympathetic through the grapevine. And how grateful I am that I have. "Her husband's having an affair" might be salacious, but it also may explain why a formerly friendly colleague has suddenly stopped coming by to chat.

Gossip could even be mentally beneficial, like crossword puzzles or sudoku. A University of Michigan study found that chatty socializing is an effective mental exercise for boosting memory and performance — just as effective, in fact, as more traditional kinds of mental exercise. So my early-morning phone calls, then, are a warm-up for my workday, like the lazy, limbering 10 minutes I log on the bike before starting to exercise.

None of the science, though, addresses being the victim of mean-spirited talk, and none of it should be taken as a get-out-of-jail-free card for your conscience: Nasty gossip is still just that.

Not too long ago, someone in the fashion industry started a fairly vicious, anonymous blog. It discussed bad outfits, who was sleeping with whom— much of which I considered unnecessarily cruel. Why splash what could be harmful somewhere it might sting? Doesn't this person have any friends? I wondered.

Gossiping about people within your social circle can feel most dangerous because you know the parties who could be harmed by its spread. I tend to consider celebrity gossip fairly harmless as its subjects are so far away from my life. I feel instantaneously guilty about speaking badly about someone I know, but speaking about strangers who appear in magazines seems as harmless as debating what the relationship between Batman and Robin was really about — which is to say, entirely surreal. Then again, one has only to consider the troubling case of Britney Spears to feel a few pangs of gossip guilt.

Damaging rumors
And, of course, gossip can be particularly damaging when it isn't true. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology in Germany recently performed an experiment in which two types of information were available to the subjects: hard data (including their own observations) and gossip from other study subjects and the researchers themselves. The majority of subjects believed the secondhand information above the hard data.

The conclusion we can draw from this study is that gossip is treated as more valuable information than our own observations — for better or for worse. We tend to doubt ourselves because we are never able to observe everything all at once. Even when presented with hard facts, many of us suspect we haven't been given the whole story. We believe the real truth is being kept from us. But gossip feels special and privileged.

Its lies can stubbornly persist. A friend was once the subject of a nasty rumor that, painfully, made its way into the stark black-and-white reality of a gossip column. "But they'll have to run a correction!" I naively told her, and I believed they would. (The rumor was patently false.) "It wouldn't even matter anymore," she (older, wiser than me) explained at the time. "Once something's out there, it's as good as true." It caused her a huge amount of grief, and even now, years later, there are plenty of people out there who still think first of that terrible rumor when they hear her name.

Last year, four female employees of a government office in the tiny town of Hooksett, New Hampshire, were fired for gossiping about their boss. The town council claimed that these women (who became known as the Hooksett Four, as if they were a crew of dusty bandits from the Wild West) had engaged in speculation over their boss's rumored affair. The women said they believed that knowledge of the affair was integral to understanding the social dynamics of their workplace. But their boss claimed he was concerned about his reputation and the effect such talk could have on his career and family. Was the firing of these women rash? Perhaps. But who hasn't been harmed by gossip?

Case in point: Years ago, thanks to some unusually thin walls, I overheard a woman I knew discussing a small bit of my life with someone. It was infuriating and bizarre. I felt naked and exposed. I immediately stormed over to a friend; I ranted, I raved. I questioned everything about the gossiper. And then I gossiped about the gossiper, lobbing nastiness right and left. My friend laughed and flapped his hand at me. "Do you feel better?" he asked. "Are you even?"

I was instantly chastened. I had been far ruder in my retaliation than this woman had been about me. I realized that gossip begets gossip. Since then, I've made some rules about gossip for myself: Although I'll still use up my cell-phone minutes on my walk-to-work chats, I'll also examine my motives, and if I'm unkind, I'll consider the implications.

But I'll forgive myself. I'm only human. And after all, gossip may be, in its own odd way, keeping us all alive and walking across the savannah.

Copyright © 2012 CondéNet. All rights reserved.

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