We have always been told that all the best things—booze, chocolate, television, grilled cheese in extremis—are bad for us. And so it is gratifying that science has finally deduced that one of life’s great pleasures, gossip, is not only life-enhancing but life-saving.
“The most important thing that will prevent you dying is the size of the social network,” Robin Dunbar, a professor of evolutionary psychology at Oxford University, told the Cheltenham Science Festival over the weekend: “That has a bigger effect than anything, except giving up cigarettes. Your social network has a huge effect on happiness and well-being.”
Dr. Jennifer Cole, a senior lecturer in the Department of Psychology at Manchester University, has written on the “short term effects of gossip behavior on self-esteem” and appeared alongside Dunbar at the science festival. “We know we are violating someone else’s privacy and it breaks social rules about politeness,” she reportedly said. “But if people don’t gossip at all, we don’t like them, we’re suspicious.”
According to Cole, who did not respond to requests for an interview, gossip matters because social connections are important. The former helps cement the latter.
What a flood of subsequent headlines missed was the devil in the detail: Gossip wrongly, negatively about people, Dunbar told The Daily Beast, and your life expectancy could diminish. Gossip only enhances your life if you gossip right.
Dunbar said he had extrapolated the positive benefits of gossip from two studies. The first was an overview of 148 other studies that looked at heart attack patients a year after their surgeries.
“The best predictor of good health was the quality of the social contact they had with others,” he said. “The only thing that came close was giving up smoking. It came way above body weight, whether they were obese or not, what medication they were on or treatments they had had, whatever therapy they had had, the exercise they took or alcohol they consumed.
“What was a much bigger factor in their recoveries was the size and vibrancy of their social network.”
The other study, Dunbar told The Daily Beast, focused on the illness rates of mothers with young toddlers. The mothers who communicated regularly with friends and family were less ill than the mothers who did not.
“The more they contacted friends and family, the less illness mother and child had,” Dunbar said. “The question then becomes how to maintain and service your social networks, and the answer is by talking to people a lot.” Hence, gossip—and why it is good for you.
That is, the professor emphasized, gossip in its original incarnation: the friendly, “over-the-garden” fence kind, as he put it. “Not the nasty sense of gossip—that came later,” he said.
He seems to mean inconsequential gossip versus spiteful, but surely over-the-garden fence gossip—“Her at No. 5? She’s been at it with the milkman”—could be just as mean and destructive as a “I heard she was sleeping with someone behind her husband’s back” said over a few white wine spritzers.
“If you get a name for yourself as a negative gossip, you will very likely be commandeered for ‘black [negative] propaganda,’” cautioned Dunbar, which honestly sounds like a whole lot of fun.
The better gossips, said Dunbar, keep a benevolent but informative eye on their social networks and feed information to its other members, keeping the whole organism ticking away.
“This is a form of social grooming,” he said. “Someone keeps an eye on who’s with who, who’s shacked up with who. That kind of gossip is a kind of information exchange.”
This setup, he said, “is the foundation of an implicit social network, in which the problems of life and death are solved collectively. It is designed for us to give up our selfish interests to gain more in what is a collaborative exercise.”
Dunbar makes gossip sound so respectable and necessary that he provides an eloquent succor to gossips who have been mistrusted for so long. You are not, tattletales of the world, blithely spreading rumor and innuendo but apparently sustaining your communities, vital cogs in the social machine.
In families, said the professor, the person who passes information on to other family members about babies, engagements, and an aunt’s illness is known as the “kin-keeper.”
If the relationships between families are dense, then among a group of friends “imagine more a bicycle wheel with hub and spokes,” said Dunbar.
The peril gossips face, he added, is when you “take the benefits of the social contract without taking account of the costs and begin cheating the system.” Translation: You gossip carelessly and land yourself or others in trouble as a result of your loose, malevolent tongue.
But we’re told that information is power, I said to Dunbar, so surely any gossip is good, even if it’s bitchy.
“People are not attracted to gossips in a negative sense,” said the professor.
Really? Surely, you can sometimes be attracted to such people. Arch gossips can have an amazing charisma.
“Gossiping provides a level of power, but it’s very fragile,” said Dunbar. “If you get the reputation of someone who gossips negatively, you become someone who cannot be trusted to tell things to.”
And so, in such a way, you get cut off from your social group and suffer all the deleterious effects of that, including to your health. Gossip cuts both ways: It can save your life, and—cut off from the sustenance of social connections—shorten it.
Dunbar accepts that we trade today in mostly negatively gossip, especially thanks to the tabloid media, which he notes “is more interested in celebrity marital breakdowns than celebrity engagements.”
“I have no idea why we have become so besotted with celebrities,” he added, a tad despairingly. One possibility, he said, was that it was a residue, born of mass communication, of our desire for charismatic leaders in communities, “when it was very important to be in the know and know what is going on in respect of your local leader.
“It looks like today that spills out with celebrities as equivalents. We give them shedloads of cash for singing a few songs or writing a book, and you could argue by keeping us with things to gossip about, they’re keeping their end of the bargain.”
Another interpretation is that these celebrities form an outer field, which Dunbar numbers at around 1,500, of people—like President Obama and the queen—we know peripherally, that we keep “coming up against. We are unknown to them, but they feel very familiar to us through film, TV, the stage, books, politics, and music.”
Next, Dunbar would like to study the constraints and mechanisms of how social networks regulate their size, and what effect social media has had on the size of those social networks.
People generally have five intimates in family or close friends, he said: 15 best friends (in their families and close friends); and 50 good friends (“people who, if you had a barbecue or party, you would consider inviting”). Beyond that, he said, tend to be 150 other people you know; and beyond that 500 lesser-known acquaintances.
Friendships are fragile, the professor said. “If you don’t tend to those friendships, or neglect seeing each other regularly, close friends can drift down the layers.” People with large families tend to have fewer friends outside the family, he said.
And gossip is the oil maintaining the friendships and links between us all, and enhancing and saving our lives by sustaining those connections.
“Gossip is a very complex poker game,” said Dunbar. “It works by you knowing something someone else doesn’t know. It can have a positive effect, but if pushed too far the reputation of the gossiper can be in danger. You play your hand as hard as you can. Aim to balance, reinforce, and service, like you service a car. Pass on delicious tidbits, but don’t overdo it.”
Dunbar would not reveal if he gossiped, only conceding in his dry way that “I find many people I know professionally and otherwise intrinsically interesting and meaningful to me. I tend not to be that interested in celebrities.”
OK, I asked, have you ever practiced in the dark arts of bad gossip and suffered the consequences?
“No comment in the absence of a lawyer,” he said, laughing.