By some estimates, around 60 percent of time spend in conversation with other people involves some form of gossip about social relationships or personal experiences.
We gossip about our friends, we gossip about our enemies, and we gossip about celebrities we've never before met — and likely never will. Why this fascination with gossip?
The origins of gossip can be traced at multiple levels: evolutionary, cultural and developmental. While some forms of gossip are almost certainly negative or superfluous, others seem to serve a beneficial social role: Gossip can help solidify personal relationships and encourage cooperation. And if a new research finding is right, children engage in this form of gossip by age 5.
Before turning to the origins of gossip in the course of human development, consider its emergence in human evolution. One provocative view comes from anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who argues that gossip is the human analogue of social grooming, which is widely practiced by our primate cousins. Through gossip, we can create and maintain social bonds more efficiently, allowing us to form groups of larger size.
More generally, though, gossip could be important in establishing and communicating an individual's reputation, and a good system for monitoring reputation can, in turn, help foster cooperation. Even if you've never transacted with a particular vendor on eBay, for example, you might be willing to do so based on the feedback provided by others. And correspondingly, knowing that a selfish act might be communicated to others — and thereby damage one's reputation — could act as a deterrent, thereby fostering better behavior. (Indeed, one study found that the threat of gossip led people to act more generously in a game that involved allocating potential funds to others.)
These suggestions about the benefits of gossip for cooperation correspond to a special subset of gossip — what's recently been called "prosocial gossip." Prosocial gossip involves sharing negative judgments about a third party, but where the shared information could protect the recipient from antisocial behavior or exploitation. Thus, gossiping about who cheats at cards or who's likely to shirk a responsibility would qualify as prosocial gossip.
So when does this form of gossip emerge in development? Young children certainly tattle, but do they similarly manage reputations among peers through prosocial gossip?
Researchers Jan Engelmann, Esther Herrmann and Michael Tomasello of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology studied prosocial gossip in both 3- and 5-year-olds. To create an opportunity for such gossip, they had the children play a game in which the aim was to collect tokens that could later be exchanged for a gift. However, as part of the game, players were supposed to share a specified number of tokens with their partners. A given player could therefore act selfishly by sharing fewer tokens, follow the norms by sharing the specified number, or act generously by sharing more than that number.
Children who participated in the study first played with two puppets — one of which was more generous than the other. A second child then came in to play the game with just one of the two puppets, and the researchers observed whether the first child "gossiped" about the puppets, offering a social evaluation that could help the second child decide which puppet to choose. For example, if a child said, "You should play with the green puppet because the yellow puppet is stingy and does not share enough tokens," that would be classified as prosocial gossip.
The researchers found that most children — in both age groups — offered some sort of guidance about which puppet to choose. But the 3-year-olds very rarely offered an evaluation to go along with it. For instance, they might recommend one puppet over the other, but they wouldn't go on to explain that it was because that puppet was generous or because the other puppet cheated. The 5-year-olds, by contrast, offered such evaluations about half the time — they went beyond a mere recommendation to a social judgment, the kind of claim that might make or break an individual's reputation.
The researchers speculate about the sources of this developmental change. Besides a more global tendency to offer justifications (which they show in a second experiment does change from ages 3 to 5), children in this age range are undergoing profound changes in their understanding of other people's minds. By age 5, children have a better grip on what another child is and isn't likely to already know about the puppets and — at least for those growing up in Western countries — they're more likely to make attributions about a person based on a limited set of observations.
So the origins of prosocial gossip may be quite deep — not only evolutionarily and culturally, but also developmentally. And gossip isn't always frivolous or bad — it can potentially serve an important and constructive social role.
But it doesn't follow that children, or adults, share gossip with the explicit and prosocial intention of helping others, just as we don't necessarily have an explicit intention to increase our biological fitness when we choose foods or mates. Gossip may be motivated by much baser intentions: a desire for attention, jealousy, schadenfreude. So the gossips among us aren't quite off the hook (even the 5-year-olds!).
Tania Lombrozo is a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley. She writes about psychology, cognitive science and philosophy, with occasional forays into parenting and veganism. You can keep up with more of what she is thinking on Twitter: @TaniaLombrozo