The social comparison and evolutionary perspectives on the functuality of gossip

Around 60% of conversations are about other people’s advantages, disadvantages, mishaps, personal lives and relationship status, in other words gossip (Wert ; Salovey 2004); men, women and children gossip many without realising that they are carrying out this interaction. Gossip is an important aspect of human communication and society as it allows people to communicate information about society’s norms and different cultures. Although gossip is now regarded as a malicious act previously it was a positive aspect of human interaction.

Dunbar (2004) states gossip originated from talking to the people which you were closest to. Now psychologists define gossip as “communication about absent people” (Bloom, 2004). The importance of gossip has been overlooked in the past but now psychologists (Dunbar, 2004, Barrett, Dunbar, & Lycett 2002) have stated that gossip is a necessity for society to function and was also necessary for humans to evolve as this provides the majority of our understanding of society.

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Dunbar (1993) proposed that language evolved so humans would have the ability to communicate within a larger group of individuals and pass on information about social situations. Individuals groomed each other in order to create social bonds and form allies and mates within their particular group but as the group grew larger this became very difficult.

Dunbar (2004) stated that because group size grew it was essential for some form of communication to evolve as this would allow people to keep track of what was happening in their group, which now generally stands at approximately 150 people and to keep track of each person’s status and to keep allies in the group would be rather difficult without communication due to time constraints previously because of the lack of language social groups were very limited in what they could achieve as they could only see what was going on around them rather than hear of the possible dangers from others who may have came across similar situations such as predators or enemies forming alliances in their social groups.

Dunbar also states that gossip has now replaced grooming, as it is used for four reasons – keeping track of individuals in your own social groups, advertising your own advantages, seeking advice and policing free riders (those who use gossip for their own advantage) Enquist and Leimar (1993) state that gossip provides individuals with an advantage to police free riders and give warnings to others about free riders which in turn then creates reputation management which is of high importance in any social group as the majority of people want to be seen as a success and being a leader of a group is a way of showing this.

According to Barrett, Dunbar, and Lycett (2002), Landis and Burtt, (1924), Kipers, (1987), Bischoping (1993), Dunbar (1997) found that people talk about social topics which is defined as topics of a personal nature regarding either the listener, speaker or a third party for approximately two thirds of every conversation, this is a lot easier and quicker than relying on grooming to forge allies especially as group size increases over time within social networks. Dunbar (2004) states that gossip was the start of language and without it, people would not be able to function in society.

The social comparison theory was described by Festinger (1954) who stated that people want to know that there are opinions are correct and abilities are on average with others, because if they are not this could lead to confrontation. This is generally done by people comparing themselves against others using “objective reality tests” but if the tests are not available people would then take to comparing their opinions or abilities with those around them especially those that are similar such as friends and family; this is now known as social comparison theory. Wert ; Salovey (2004) took this theory one step further and went on to describe gossip as “a social psychological behaviour” and applied the social comparison theory to gossip in order to gain a better understanding of how gossip actually helps people function in society.

Wert ; Salovey (2004) state that people generally compare themselves using six different forms of comparison – “comparison with similar others” which is where an individual compares themselves against someone who is in a similar situation, they do this by seeking out the individual and then comparing situations to see what they would do or how they would react in that particular situation; “downward and upward comparison” when an individual seeks out people who are in less fortunate position than themselves or even compare themselves against someone who is in a better position either to make themselves feel better or find a way to improve the most likely one of the two is the downward comparison as people generally feel better if they are in a better position than others;

“In-group and out-group” comparison which is quite a necessary comparison as it shows who is within each group giving each person their own status and identity in that particular group which helps with a person’s self esteem the more people know about their groups the better they feel; the “socially constructed comparison” is when an individual compares themselves against something imaginary social norms, the norms are generally virtues which the individual desires, this is possibly the most common form of comparison as it helps the in/out groups decide on leadership qualities sometimes the norms are created when talking and are not a predisposed idea and finally the “emotional comparison” which usually occurs when an individual feels threatened and they then look for others who are in a similar situation to find out how they would react, this also helps individuals to understand their own feelings and how to deal with them appropriately.

Gossip make these comparisons a lot easier as it is indirect which means there is less confrontation for both parties and the individuals can then go into their social group and reiterate the situation to their peers and then receive feedback from the group of how they should act in certain situations. This shows that gossip play a great part in forming social bonds and keeping them is an integral role in society. As society is constantly changing people need to be more aware of the problems which could occur and how to deal with them, people learn how to do this by “gossiping” – repeating a story that has previously been told.

Baumeister, Zhang & Vohs, (2004) state that gossip is how we learn about society as other people pass on information about occurrences’ that have happened to others in society, for example if an individual used a particular website and found out that they became a victim of identity theft due to the website been having improper security settings the individual is very likely to warn those closest to them about this site and then the others would most likely warn another group of individuals to prevent the same situation occurring. This gives great opportunity for free riders as they can use any bit of gossip for their own gains either to make themselves look better or show that they have particular advantages and the person they are talking about does not have these qualities. Gossip has actually become a necessity for humans to develop.

Without gossip it would not be possible for people to function in society; seemingly the majority of research into gossip and social comparison seems to say that it is a very self serving aspect of communication because of this view, this may be why gossip is deemed as such a negative and malicious act because people use it to push their own advantages. As this is a relatively new area of research there are suggestions from Wert, (2004) stating that if more psychological theories such as attribution theory , ingroup and out group processes included gossip in their research they would find that it is very relevant conceot to society and its functions. Dunbar (2004) states that gossip is what makes us human and because of the cognitive process we use when gossiping this is why human brains are so large and evolved.