Did you hear? Our brains are hardwired for gossip

Have you ever felt that your workplace — which may look like a mild-mannered gathering of people in business casual — is sometimes as treacherous as the infamously backstabbing Court of Louis XIV?

Of course you have. That’s why Game of Thrones is so popular: in every middle manager fretting over the year-end budget, there is a potential Littlefinger waiting to emerge.

So yes, we know the bad side of gossip: the irresponsibility of it, the perpetual factlessness, the maliciousness, the way it tears apart teams and makes people leave their jobs. Office gossips also tend to be enormous time-wasters, spending more time talking smack than getting work done.

But gossip can be good, too.  Yes, take your hands off your ears: gossip can be helpful in certain situations. Sure, too much venting and complaining is not helpful, but learning some otherwise-obscure details about your co-workers can teach you who is trustworthy and who you should avoid. Gossip is, in other words, the way that we can engage in the centuries-old human practice of sizing each other up and navigating complex social systems.

And guess what? Whether you love it or hate it, gossip is not going away. Because our brains are built for it.

Hardwired for social

A new study shows how this gossiping impulse is built into our very neurons. A 2017 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences highlighted the stakes of developing those social networks: “[k]nowledge about other people is critical for group survival and may have unique cognitive processing demands.”

The researchers asked 50 participants to learn biographical information, such as occupation, marital status and personality traits, about fictional people. The participants were then asked to recall that information three days later with different cues like giving the participants a face or a name.

In each scenario, the anterior temporal lobe, or ATL, was the “neural switchboard” coordinating how our brains could represent abstract concepts about a person —“Bill is an introvert”— and rapidly retrieve this “person knowledge.”

This makes sense: our brains are also wired to understand information better when it comes in the form of a story. (Which is why all the great epics, from Beowulf to Gilgamesh, have lasted so long despite their incredible length: they’re in story form).

There’s another reason we store information about others so well: because we’re always looking for insight into our own behavior.

Gossip makes you evaluate yourself

A 2014 study in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin defined gossip as “positive or negative evaluative talk about someone who is not present.” Researchers found that, for better or worse, we’re social creatures who use evaluative information about others to evaluate ourselves. Do you know anyone who measures himself against a celebrity? That’s why: we want to know how we’re doing compared to the leaders in our species (and feel superior to the laggards).

Here’s an example: Researchers got over 150 students at a Dutch university to recall an incident where someone told them positive or negative gossip about a student’s competence. Students were then asked to reflect on the information with statements like: “The information I received made me feel that I am doing well compared to X in the group assignment.”

Learning positive gossip about other people was linked to a “self-improvement” value, so that learning about other people’s accomplishments allowed “individuals to picture similar future success for themselves.” Learning negative gossip about others, in comparison, helped individuals with their “self-promotion,” or a sense of pride. Hearing about others’ failure allowed individuals to feel good about where they stood in the social hierarchy. Men in the study felt their egos inflate more than women when they heard negative gossip, researchers found.

Negative gossip also increased “self-protection” concerns for all recipients, or fears that they too could become objects of bad office gossip.

Overall, the researchers found that women were more sensitive to gossip than men, and that men felt less self-protective fear when they heard about negative gossip than women, leading them to conclude: “women may be more sensitive than men to information revealing a benign or malignant social environment and may also derive their self-views to a higher extent from it.”

In the end, gossip is like any addictive substance such as alcohol or cigarettes: a little may not hurt you, but use it responsibly or you could really feel some pain.