Social Grooming: The Role of Gossip

Human by Michael S Gazzaniga

Human: The Science Behind What Makes Us Unique, Michael S. Gazzaniga


"Gossiping has a bad reputation, but researchers who study gossip have not only found it to be universal, they have found that it is beneficial, that it is the way we learn to live in society. Dunbar thinks gossip is the human equivalent of social grooming in other primates (and remember, the size of the grooming group correlates with relative brain size). Physical grooming takes up much of a primate’s time. The primates that spend the most time grooming are chimps, who do it up to 20 percent of the time." At some point during the evolution of the hominids, as groups became larger, an individual would need to groom more and more other individuals in order to maintain relationships in the larger group. Grooming time would cut into the time that was needed to forage for food. This is when, Dunbar argues, language began to develop. If language began to substitute for grooming, one could "groom," that is to say, gossip, while doing other things, such as foraging, traveling, and eating. This could be how talking with your mouth full began.

"However, language can be a double-edged sword. The advantages of language are that you can groom several people at once (more efficient) and you can get and give information over a wider network. However, the disadvantage is that you are vulnerable to cheaters. With physical grooming, an individual invests high-quality personal time. That cannot be faked. With language, a new dimension has been added: liars. One can tell stories displaced in time, so their veracity is difficult to assess, and while grooming is done among a group, where it is visible and verifiable to all, gossiping can be done in private, and its veracity is not challenged. But language can also help you out with this problem. You may be warned by a friend about a previously bad experience with a certain individual. As a social group gets larger and more dispersed, cheaters or free riders become harder to keep track of. Gossip may have evolved partly as a way to control the slackers.

"Various studies have found that, on the average, humans spend 80 percent of their waking time in the company of others. We average six to twelve hours per day in conversation, mostly one-on-one with known individuals. What has been found out shouldn’t come as any surprise to you. Nicholas Emler, a social psychologist at the London School of Economics, has studied the content of conversations and learned that 80 to 90 percent are about specific named and known individuals, which is to say, small talk. Impersonal topics, although they may involve personal opinions on art, literature, religion, politics, and so forth, form only a small part of the total. This is true not only about chance meetings in the grocery store but also at universities and corporate lunches. You might think that the world’s problems are being discussed and settled over power lunches, but it is really Bob’s tee time, Bill’s new Porsche, and the new secretary that are getting 90 percent of the air time. If you think this is an exaggerated statistic, then think about all those annoying cell phone conversations you have overheard. Have you ever heard anyone talking about Aristotle or quantum mechanics or Balzac at the table next to you or in the grocery line?

"Other studies show that two-thirds of the content of conversations are self-disclosure. Of these, 11 percent are about states of mind (my mother-in-law is driving me nuts) or body (I really want that liposuction). The rest are about preferences ("I know it’s weird, but I really like LA"), plans ("I am going to start exercising on Friday"), and the most talked about, doings ("I fired him yesterday"). In fact doings is the biggest category of conversations about others. Gossip serves many purposes in society: It fosters relationships between gossip partners, satisfies the need to belong and be accepted by a unique group, elicits information, builds reputations (both good and bad), maintains and reinforces social norms, and allows individuals to evaluate themselves through comparison with others. It may enhance status in a group, or it may just entertain. Gossip allows people to express their opinions, ask advice, and express approval and disapproval.

"Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist at the University of Virginia who studies happiness, writes that "Gossip is a policeman and a teacher. Without it, there would be chaos and ignorance." It is not just women who gossip, although men like to call it "exchanging information" or "networking." The only time when men spend less time gossiping than women do is when women are present. Then more lofty subjects are discussed for about 15 to 20 percent of the time. The only difference between male and female gossip is that men spend two-thirds of the time talking about themselves ("and when I reeled that sucker in, I swear it weighed twenty five pounds!"), whereas women spend only one-third of the time talking about themselves, and are more interested in others ("and the last time I saw her, I swear she had gained twenty-five pounds!).

"Beyond the content of conversations, Dunbar also discovered that conversation groups are not infinitely large but are usually self-limiting to about four individuals. Think about the last party you went to. People drift in and out of conversation groups, but once you go over four people, they do tend to break up into two conversations. He says it may be coincidence, but he suggests a correlation with chimp grooming. If you take a conversation group of four persons, only one is talking and the other three are listening, or in chimp lingo, are being groomed. Chimps have to groom one-on-one, and their maximum social group size is 55. If we can groom three at a time, as indicated by conversation group size, then if you multiply our three grooming partners by 55, you get 165—close to our social group size that Dunbar calculated from the neocortex size of humans."

pp. 94-97,  emphasis added

Human: The Science Behind What Makes Us Unique, Michael S. Gazzaniga, 2008

One Response to “Social Grooming: The Role of Gossip”

  1. Survival games and the role of gossip « Says:

    […] “We average six to twelve hours per day in conversation, mostly one-on-one with known individ…“ […]

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