Feature Archive

Psst, Have You Heard?

Is gossip genetic?

WebMD Feature

Sept. 4, 2000 -- Whenever Jean Bennett and her co-workers get together, the talk turns invariably in the direction of dish. "You know, I shouldn't be telling you this," says Bennett, a 42-year-old Southern California sales representative, who asked that her real name not be used for this story. "But the boss has been taking more and more long weekends, and we've all seen her put away three or four margaritas at parties."

Her friend jumps boldly into the ring. "No wonder she's never around when we need her. I wonder how long before there's a new name on her door..."

While we may look askance at Bennett's pastime, most of us have from time to time taken pleasure in dissecting the affairs of others. Gossip is hard to resist.

Some scientists now speculate that we're powerfully drawn to gossip because it's in our very genes. A robust round of gossip may be good for us, they say; it may even ensure that we and our offspring survive.

Gossip: The Social Tie That Binds

As you might suspect, the genetic explanation comes from evolutionary psychologists, who explain human behavior according to its survival benefits. The theory -- as with most evolutionary theories -- starts with the apes. Our primate ancestors cemented ties within their small social groups through the ritual of grooming, says Robin Dunbar, a University of Liverpool psychology professor and the author of Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language.