“If society could have its own mind, its goal would be to prevent people from misbehaving”
“We live in a very gossipy society, so everything we do, in a sense, is public knowledge.”
“The desire and motivation to gossip likely came about for important reasons, even if we look down on it.”
— Matthew Feinberg
Talking behind other people’s backs may not always be nice, but sometimes it can help promote cooperation and self-improvement.
While gossiping is a behavior that has long been frowned upon, perhaps no one has frowned quite so intensely as the 16th- and 17th-century British. Back then, gossips, or “scolds” were sometimes forced to wear a menacing iron cage on their heads, called the “branks” or “scold’s bridle.” These masks purportedly had iron spikes or bits that went in the mouth and prevented the wearer from speaking. (And, of course, this ghastly punishment seems to have been mostly for women who were talking too much.)
Today, people who gossip are still not very well-liked, though we tend to resist the urge to cage their heads. Progress. And yet the reflexive distaste people feel for gossip and those who gossip in general is often nowhere to be found when people find themselves actually faced with a juicy morsel about someone they know. Social topics—personal relationships, likes and dislikes, anecdotes about social activities—made up about two-thirds of all conversations in analyses done by evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar. The remaining one-third of their time not spent talking about other people was devoted to discussing everything else: sports, music, politics, etc.