In her controversial single “Look What You Made Me Do,” Taylor no-longer-a-victim Swift claps back at the hordes of nasty journalists and celebrities that have gossiped about her behind her back. Her ire isn’t unwarranted, but the scientists behind a new paper in Evolutionary Psychological Science would probably tell her to find some chill. Gossip — even the pettiest, nastiest kind — is an integral part of human existence, their study suggests, and we probably wouldn’t be here without it.
The major reason gossip is so important, write the University of Ottawa evolutionary psychologists, is because it helps us hook up with the mate of our choice, both by providing an efficient way to find out about their secrets (maybe they’re actually not who you want to hook up with!) and, crucially, by making it easier to crush the competition.
Gossip is “a highly evolved social skill essential for interpersonal relationships, rather than a flaw of character,” explained lead author Adam Davis, Ph.D., in a statement about the study on Thursday.
Evolutionary biologists have long speculated that gossip played a big role in the development of human societies, suggesting that it provided a way for early humans to decide who they could trust, in turn allowing them to form increasingly bigger communities. What’s different about the new study is its focus on the role gossip plays in sex — which, obviously, is ultimately the engine that keeps our scandalmongering human race chugging along.
The researchers came to this conclusion after studying, via three questionnaires, the gossiping habits of 290 heterosexual students between the ages of 17 and 30, a demographic that the researchers said “compete more fiercely for mates.” Those questionnaires explored how competitive the participants felt toward people of the same sex when it came to getting a potential date’s attention, how often they talked behind other people’s backs, and whether they thought spreading hearsay was an acceptable behavior.
Analyzing the results revealed that gossip is primarily used as a tool for competition. Individuals who experienced “intrasexual competition” — that is, feeling competitive with people of the same sex when seeking potential mates — were more likely to gossip frequently and think doing so was okay. Women have a greater tendency to gossip than men, the researchers point out, and when they do, they like to talk about other people’s physical appearance and spread social information. When men gossip, the study showed, they largely talk about wealth and athleticism.
To Davis and his team, the results support the observation that women seem to gossip more about other people than men, a behavior that has unfairly garnered negative and sexist connotations in modern society. But rather than further demonize this behavior, the researchers say their aim is to point out that gossiping is a normal part of mating and as such deserves to be reconsidered by therapists, counselors, educators, and the general public as an important social skill rather than a “flaw of character.”
They even go so far as to make the case that gossiping is so integral to human evolution that it shaped male preference for attractive females. The fact that women tend to gossip about each other’s physical appearance, they write, may reflect “an adaptation to increase their mate value” to men. What they’re essentially saying is that ancient women realized men liked a certain type of lady, so they talked smack about the ones that didn’t fit the look to get rid of the competition. It’s a bit of a stretch, but whether or not the interpretation is correct, the researchers’ intent still stands — to show that gossip is a natural, normal thing.
Swift should welcome this news with open arms. For all her griping about the media spreading salacious news about her, she’s pretty much built her career doing the same in pop song form. Which, as we’ve just realized, is totally fine! But whether doing so has helped her eliminate the competition, like it did for her ancient forebears, is probably not something she’ll be especially loose-lipped about.
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