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Don't feel guilty about gossip; enjoy it

When my husband comes home, I ask him hopefully, "Any gossip?"

"Nope," he usually replies. Occasionally he presents me with a little gem of gossip and looks as pleased with himself as if he were presenting me with a diamond necklace.

Most of us feel guilty about how much we love to gossip. Calling someone "an old gossip" is hardly a compliment.

But new research is showing that gossip helps us. It's a source of useful information, concludes Frank McAndrew, professor of psychology at Knox College.

Our prehistoric ancestors lived their lives in small groups where people knew everyone in a face-to-face, long-term kind of way. Living under such conditions, our ancestors faced a number of problems, such as figuring out who would cheat you, who would be a good mate, and how to successfully manage friendships, alliances and family relationships.

They needed social intelligence for success, the ability to predict and influence the behavior of others. Gossip gives you just this sort of information.

People who were interested in the lives of others were more successful and it is their genes that have come down to us through the ages. Our inability to resist gossip shouldn't be a source of guilt. It's a sign of valuable talent at gathering useful information.

If you can remember details about the temperament, predictability and past behavior of individuals whom you knew personally, you are much better off. You can predict what they're likely to do and do to you.

We want stories about particular people. "I'm not surprised when the same psychology students who get glassy-eyed at any mention of statistical data about human beings become riveted by case studies of individual people experiencing psychological problems," McAndrew points out.

Successful teachers and politicians use anecdotes and personal narratives to make their points. These anecdotes are fascinating, easy to remember.

The flip side is our interest in personal tragedies. Stalin said, "One death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic." We're not especially interested in statistics about the number of children kidnapped this year. But a television show about a particular child, showing the grieving parents begging for his return, we find riveting.

So what kind of gossip do we most enjoy? We're most interested in gossip about people of the same sex and age as ourselves, McAndrew and his students find.

We especially are interested in scandals and misfortunes, especially of our rivals and high-status people. We like to hear positive information too, like who got promoted, who is getting married, who is having a baby. We want to know what they did and how it turned out. This gives us guidelines on how to get ahead and what to avoid.

We enjoy delicious gossip about celebrities--who is having an affair, who is adopting babies, why Oprah Winfrey has gained 50 pounds and how she hired a gourmet cook to help her shed the pounds. I bought the cookbook and tried out a number of her recipes.

Well-worn copies of People magazine can be found in any doctor's waiting room. Even my husband furtively glances at the National Enquirer in the supermarket checkout line.

"Patrick Swayze has 5 Weeks to Live" is the headline of an exclusive Enquirer story. I immediately clicked on it, learning that he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer that has spread to other organs, that his cancer was not responding and that the doctors held out little hope for a cure.

Why am I interested? I didn't even know who Patrick Swayze was until I read the story. But I did find out valuable information about pancreatic cancer, a disease a friend of mine has.

If you find yourself on the alert for the latest gossip, don't feel guilty about it. Your hunt for gossip will make you more successful.

Judith Kleinfeld is co-director of Northern Studies and a professor of psychology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Judith Kleinfeld

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