Like Belgian Chocolate for the Universal Mind. Interpersonal and Media Gossip from an Evolutionary Perspective. (Charlotte De Backer)


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“[…] gossip is like a butterfly; if you chase it, the more it will fly away from you, if you sit still, it will land on your shoulders.”  ~Almirol, 1981: 300


There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, not being talked about.

~Oscar Wilde




"To a philosopher all news, as it is called, is gossip, and they who edit it and read it are old women over their tea." (Henry David Thoreau, American philosopher & naturalist, writer of Walden 1817-1862)


1 Gossip as a research topic


Whether we like it or not, we all gossip. Asking 74 American women and 44 American men with ages ranging from 18 to 47 to keep a diary about their daily conversations for two weeks, Goldsmith and Baxter (1996) wanted to learn more about everyday relations, and the role of talk. The main finding of their research was: “Gossip was the most frequently enacted speech event over the 2-week period of data collection.” (Goldsmith & Baxter, 1996: 107).


People gossip a lot. Together with ‘joking around’, ‘catching up’, ‘small talk’, and ‘recapping the day’s events’, people spent 48.9% of their daily conversations to ‘informal talk’ (Goldsmith & Baxter 1996). Dunbar (1998) even raises this amount to 70% of our daily conversations, when adding self-talk to his definition of gossip.


Although gossip is so dominantly present in the everyday life of every individual, this is not reflected in the scientific field. There has been paid some attention to gossip, but the attention does not reflect the dominant presence of gossip in our lives. In  the 1960’s and 1970’s gossip flourished in scientific fields, when anthropologists Max Gluckman (1963, 1968) and Robert Paine (1967) vividly debated whether gossip benefits individuals or groups as a whole. Other anthropologists as well have looked at gossip (e.g. Abrahams, 1970; Almirol, 1981; Arno, 1980; Besnier, 1989; Bleek, 1976; Brenneis, 1984, 1987; Colson, 1953; Cox, 1970; Gilmore, 1978; Handelman, 1973; Hannerz, 1967; Haviland, 1977; Murphy, 1985; Szwed, 1966). And within the field of psychology (e.g. Eder & Enke, 1991; Levin & Arluke, 1985; Nevo & Nevo, 1993; Nevo, Nevo & Derech-Zahavi, 1994; and 2004 General Review of Psychology 8(2) issue on ‘gossip’) and communication studies (e.g. 1977 Journal of Communication 27(1)) some attention has been paid to gossip as a research topic. Last, a new body of interest to study gossip comes from the recent field of evolutionary psychology (e.g. Davis & McLeod, 2003; Dunbar, 1992b, 1993, 1997, 1998a, 1998b; Hess & Hagen, 2002, 2004a, 2004b ; McAndrew & Milenkovic, 2002; Wilson, Wilczynski, Wells & Weiser, 2000).


I will now outline the boundaries of this study, set out my specific research goals, and give a brief introduction to the field of evolutionary psychology.



2 What is included and what is not


Gossip refers both to a message and an action. Because a lot of discussion exists on how to define gossip as a noun (message) and a verb (action), I give an overview of the most important debates in chapter 1 of this dissertation. Defining gossip, both as an act and as a noun, is one of the specific research goals of this dissertation (see below). I will here only briefly touch on this matter, to outline the boundaries of this study, but I refer to chapter 1 for an overview of what gossip is about and what it is not.


As a noun gossip is information about the traits and behaviors of other people. Rumors as well are about the actions of other people (Bergmann, 1993), and self-disclosure handles about the traits and behaviors of an individual –the speaker- as well, but both are not part of this study. I have restricted my research topic to gossip, and have excluded rumors and self-disclosure. That for the simple reason that gossip itself already is a very broad topic, as will become clear in chapter 1. Rumors and self-disclosure might be very related to gossip, but are significantly different. The main difference between self-disclosure and gossip concerns the subject talked about. Where gossip focuses on third parties, self-disclosure is information about the sender himself or herself. The main differences between gossip and rumors first of all concern the topic of information, and second the reliability of information. While gossip is about human subjects (see chapter 1), rumors can be about a much broader range of topics. Rumors are about humans, but also about animals, companies or events (Bergmann, 1993). Next, while gossip is used to refer to reliable information, rumors lack this reliability. When the sender does not know whether the content of his or her message is true or not, the message is considered a rumor and not a gossip (see also chapter 1 for more detailed discussion).


As an action gossip involves communication. Communication refers to every process where a sender delivers a message to a receiver. Communication is no one-way process, but often involves interaction between several actors. The receiver often gives feedback on the message he or she received from the sender (Adler & Towne, 1993). Again I refer to chapter 1, where I will give an overview of several points of discussion that centre around how gossip as an act can be defined.


Communication and interpersonal communication in particular, involves a lot of non-verbal communication (Stamp, 1999). When we gossip as well, we use body movements, and facial expressions to communicate our thoughts. We can even gossip without using words. When someone you dislike enters the room, you only need to roll your eyes to your friend –who also dislikes the person entering- to express your feeling that he or she has entered while you do not appreciate this. Although these are interesting features of gossip, I have not incorporated these aspects in this dissertation. Non-verbal communication is a broad field of research, and it would have expanded my research topic too much to put in one doctoral dissertation.


Although gossip is most often associated with talk in a face-to-face interaction process, and some (e.g. Morreall, 1994) say that gossip columns are misnamed, and media products in general cannot be labelled as gossip, I did include Media Gossip in this study, next to Interpersonal Gossip, that refers to the classical face-to-face gossip interaction. Media Gossip concerns gossip information spread through media channels. In our modern Western societies it is impossible to ignore Media Gossip. Even those individuals who do not have a radio, or a television, who never read newspapers or magazines, and who never go to movie theatres, even those are still confronted with Media Gossip. We cannot avoid it. When walking on the street, billboards scream gossip messages about people we have never met in real life, about complete unknowns, or movie stars. Because of the dominant presence of this fairly new form of gossip, and the fact that I am working as a researcher in the field of Communication Studies, I considered it a necessity to embody this field of gossip in this study as well. Moreover, research on Media Gossip is even scarcer than research on gossip in interpersonal face-to-face interactions. In chapter 7 of this dissertation I will give an overview of the research that has been done so far, and again I will add to this a new approach to study Media Gossip, framed in the perspective of Evolutionary Psychology. Because of the lack of empirical studies, most of my empirical research centres around Media Gossip (see also below).


As a very last form of gossip that will be talked about in this study, I mention Interpersonal Media Gossip. Interpersonal Gossip deals with the face-to-face communication between two or more participants, talking about a third mutual acquaintance. John saying to Steve about their new colleague Sofia: “Have you met our new colleague yet? Sofia, she is pretty good looking and very smart it seems!”, is indulging in Interpersonal Gossip. Media Gossip refers to the mass media communicated messages about third parties. Sofia reading that “Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie officially admit they have an affair!” in the latest issue of a gossip magazine, is consuming Media Gossip. Media Gossip subjects are either celebrities, or can be unknowns as well (see chapter 7 for a detailed overview). As soon as individuals start talking interpersonal about the subjects of Media Gossip, I refer to this as Interpersonal Media Gossip. For instance, if Sofia later that day calls one of her friends and says “Hey have you heard? They finally admit it: Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are dating!”, she starts an Interpersonal Media Gossip transaction.



3 Goals of this study


The initial scope of my research project was to come to a better understanding of why people gossip so much. Interpersonal Gossip is commonly seen as a negative habit, as inappropriate behavior. Most often this ‘bad behavior’ is associated with women, while men are considered not to indulge in it. As Baumeister, Zhang and Vohs (2004) recently commented, many researchers uphold this very negative view on gossip as well. Consider for instance the following quote Lanz wrote:


“I hope to show that gossip is not merely a ludicrous weakness chiefly confined to the idle portion of the fair sex, but a social force, an intricate mechanism through which the organized forces of evil gain access to various departments of human life. In the language of theology, which in its conciseness and symbolic power is surpassed only by that of pure mathematics, gossip may properly be called one of Satan’s chief weapons in his design to rule over the world.”  (Lanz, 1936: 492)


Still, Interpersonal Gossip is much more than women’s talking bad behind someone else’s back. The initial scope of this study was to show how other researchers had already tried to make this clear, and add to their approach a new level of explanation.


Human behavior can be explained either on a proximate level, or at an ultimate level. The first concerns answers to “How” questions, while the latter puts forward answers to “Why” questions (e.g. Gaulin & McBurney, 2004). Social scientists have so far focused on answering how gossip operates in our daily lives. Explanations for our Interpersonal Gossip behavior draw on immediate contextual influences, and do not seek information on a lower-level evolutionary input. Evolutionary psychologists, who implement biological theories of the last decades in various social disciplines, such as psychology and economy, focus on ultimate explanations to explain human behavior (see also below). In this study I want to integrate both levels of explanation, to show that they are not opposed to each other, but rather complement each other, and together offer a more complete understanding of human behavior, such as Interpersonal Gossip.


Still, as I started this research project I very soon realized I had to solve another problem first: that of defining Interpersonal Gossip. As Foster (2004) recently remarked, various researchers have struggled to put forward ‘the’ definition of Interpersonal Gossip. As many researchers that have studied Interpersonal Gossip, as many definitions of gossip circulate in the scientific literature. Because they all use their own definition of Interpersonal Gossip, many studies are hard to compare to each other. Foster (2004) recently aimed to future researchers of Interpersonal Gossip to try to solve this problem, and to come up with a clear conceptualization of what Interpersonal Gossip is about.


Intuitively everyone knows what Interpersonal Gossip is about, and everyone has an opinion about it (Rosnow & Fine, 1976). Still, when asking ten people to define what they think is Interpersonal Gossip, it is likely you get ten different answers to this question. Everyone has his own definition of Interpersonal Gossip, and his own ideas why it is good or bad to engage in the exchange of it. So do researchers.


Therefore the scientific scope of the part of this study on Interpersonal Gossip is twofold. I first of all want to offer a solution to the definition problem of Interpersonal Gossip, and second, I want to put forward a complete theory that explains both how Interpersonal Gossip operates in our daily lives (proximate level), and why gossip emerged and still exists (ultimate level).


A third scientific scope I have added is to fully explain the recent phenomenon of Media Gossip. Is Media Gossip definable as gossip? Does it concern the same topics as Interpersonal Gossip? And last, how can something as recent as this, be explained on an ultimate level of explanation that draws on principles of evolution?



4 Interdisciplinary approach


To reach my scientific goals of this research project I used an interdisciplinary approach to study human behavior. Gossip is communication, and some research on gossip has been done from within the field of communication studies (see above). As a communication studies researcher I could have chosen to frame my research solely into their theoretical framework. However I have opted not to do this. Since, as Fine and Rosnow (1978) have stressed, not only communication studies, but also other disciplines such as psychology, anthropology, and sociology are relevant to investigate ‘gossip’:


“Many of the current leading social psychological topic areas (attribution theory, attitude change, interpersonal attraction, and sex roles) can be approached through an investigation of gossip. There are interesting research questions at all levels of investigation to encourage social psychologists not to ignore this frequent and emotionally loaded human behavior, and in the spirit of interdisciplinary camaraderie to work in collaboration with anthropologists, sociologists, and personality psychologists in searching for an integrative framework for gossip.” (Fine & Rosnow, 1978: 166)


In my theoretical framework I will draw on contributions from anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists and communication studies researchers. All of these standard social sciences have investigated one or more features of gossip.


Next to integrating the ideas of these various standard social science approaches to gossip, I have chosen to use a more recent field of research as my main theoretical framework. The major part of this study is framed into the scientific field of evolutionary psychology, as I have already mentioned above. Evolutionary psychologists (e.g., Symons 1979; Tooby & Cosmides 1990) propose that human psychology was shaped by the process of natural selection.  They integrate biological principles into the social sciences, building on ultimate explanations for human behavior.


Evolutionary psychology becomes increasingly popular within the scientific field. The ‘Human Behavior and Evolution Society’ is a U.S.-based  interdisciplinary organization that unites biologists, anthropologists, psychologists, sociologist and researchers from the fields of economy, philosophy, communication studies, and others working in an evolutionary perspective. Their annual meetings bring together increasing numbers of researchers from all of these different domains. They attract prestigious researchers such as linguist Steven Pinker, evolutionary biologists George Williams, Robert Trivers, Edward O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins, anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon, and ‘founders’ of evolutionary psychology Jerome Barkow, Leda Cosmides and John Tooby. Next to these well-known researchers, they also offer the opportunity to hundreds of young researchers to present their results.


That evolutionary psychology is even becoming increasingly relevant among researchers within the field of communication studies follows from the fact that at the last ‘Human Behavior and Evolution Society’ meeting a double session on ‘Media, Gossip, and Human Universals’ was organized by socio-anthropologist Jerome Barkow, media-sociologist Peter Hejl and myself. In February 2005 Peter Hejl also organized a conference ‘Media and Universals 2005. Focus in Film and Print’. For the very first time international recognized evolutionary psychologists were brought together with international recognized researchers from the communication studies.


Next to the scientific field, also the broader audience is interested in evolutionary psychology. Books as Steven Pinker’s ‘How the mind works’ (1997) and ‘The blank slate’ (2002) are bestsellers. And also popular magazines and newspapers report about evolutionary psychology.


Still, despite the growing interest, not all that is written about evolutionary psychology is positive. A lot of controversy about this fairly new research domain exists both in the scientific field and the popular press. A lot of the criticism, however, is based on a misunderstanding or misinterpretation of what evolutionary psychologists put forward. A common misunderstanding of evolutionary psychology often stems from the (false) interpretation that evolution operates directly on behavior. Cosmides and Tooby (1987, 1990) however, have stressed that evolution operates on psychological mechanisms, or adaptations (see chapter 3). Adaptations are universally alike, not differing from each other, but the behavioral outcome of adaptations might be different because of environmental different influences (Symons, 1992: 139).


Second, evolutionary psychologists are sometimes criticized for being genetic determinists. However, it has been explained by countless authors (e.g. Buss, 1999; Gaulin & McBurney, 2004; Tooby and Cosmides, 1990b) that evolutionary psychology is not at all about some genetic determinism of our behavior. Every behavioral outcome is the result of a biological basis (nature) in interaction with the environment (nurture).


Third, certain skeptics say that evolutionary psychologists draw moral conclusions from the field of evolutionary psychology. However, as should be clear to everybody familiar with this field, no moral conclusions can be drawn from evolutionary psychology in particular or biology in general. Saying that in biological terms men benefit most from having multiple partners is not saying that men should aim to have multiple partners. Critics of evolutionary psychology often translate the biological explanations for successful and unsuccessful strategies in guidelines of how we should and should not behave. This is not correct.


Fourth, and last, popularizations of evolutionary psychology often focus on the male/female differences explained in this scientific framework. Evolutionary psychologists indeed put forward that men and women have partly different desires (Symons, 1979) and act differently due to differences in selection pressures throughout our evolutionary past. But they do not say that one of the two sexes is superior to the other. Moreover, they explain how a better understanding of sex differences, with knowledge about the different qualities of men and women can lead to a better understanding of the performance of men and women in our societies (see e.g. Vandermassen, 2005).


This and other misunderstandings will be cleared out, as I give an introduction to the field of evolutionary psychology in chapter 3.



5 Dissertation outline


This dissertation consists of two major parts. In a first part I outline a theoretical framework for my research topic. This theoretical part consists of 7 chapters. In the first chapter I conceptualize and operationalize my research topic. Because the word ‘gossip’ is so hard to define, and many different definitions exist, I start with a historical overview of how the English word ‘gossip’ and the Dutch variant ‘roddel’ were first used and how the meaning of both words has evolved over time. In a second part of that chapter I present the current debates on how ‘gossip’ can be defined. The discussions on how to define gossip can most generally be classified as (1) discussions on how to define gossip as a noun and (2) discussions on how to define gossip as an act. At the end of chapter 1 I put forward a very general definition of gossip, that takes into account the most relevant and critical issues of discussion that previous researchers have argued on. This general definition will be used to perform an effect-study and a functional analysis in the following chapters.


In chapter 2 I perform an effect-study to explain how gossip operates in our daily lives. Effect-studies focus on “how”-questions, and are proximate levels of explanation (Gaulin & McBurney, 2004; Nelissen, 2000). In chapter 3 I first give an introduction to what evolutionary psychology is and what it is not. Following on this, I present the first steps of my adaptationist analysis in chapter 3, and continue this in chapter 4.


Chapter 4 is probably the most important chapter of this dissertation. In this chapter I give an overview of the adaptive problems our ancestors have faced, and to which specific kinds of gossip might have offered a solution. In this chapter I argue that it is better to see gossip as an overall noun of different sub-categories that each could solve very specific problems, occurring in our evolutionary past.


In chapter 5 I translate the different kinds of gossip as a noun I distinguish in chapter 4 into behavioral models. I will present some optimization models and decision trees that explain the optimal strategies to share and acquire different kinds of gossip.


Chapter 6 gives an overview of how gossip develops in a lifetime. I will discuss which underlying psychological mechanisms are required to enable gossip. I also present an overview of how easily gossip develops in almost anyone’s lifespan, and I pay attention to the male/female differences in this process.


In the seventh and last chapter of the first, theoretical part of my dissertation I present a theory to explain our interest in Media Gossip.


In a second empirical part of this dissertation I have opted to present my empirical work in the format of empirical papers. Each of these papers is meant to be submitted to a scientific journal for publication. The first three papers focus on aspects of Interpersonal Gossip, while the following five papers investigate features of Media Gossip.


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