The Visual Impact of Gossip explains that gossip has evolutionary underpinnings and was important in “helping you to predict who is friend and who is foe,” according to Lisa Feldman Barrett, Ph.D., who authored the study with Eric Anderson, Erika H. Siegel and Eliza Bliss-Moreau, which was published online by Science on May 19, 2011. “The finding suggests we are hardwired to pay more attention to a person if we’ve been told they are dangerous or dishonest or unpleasant.”
“Even when primitive humans lived in small groups, they needed to know things like who might be a threat and who was after a particular mate… and learning those things through personal experience would have been slow and potentially dangerous,” according to psychology professor Frank McAndrew.
Purchase and read the entire study here. For a longer analysis of gossip in society, read Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language by Robin Dunbar.
Of course, we shouldn’t conclude that the suggested evolutionary benefits of gossip somehow excuse or justify the mean-spiritedness and viciousness that gossip frequently entails, especially in the online realm.