Neuron Culture

In “The Gregarious Brain,” my NY Times Magazine story last year about Williams syndrome — in which a genetic accident causes an intriguing combination of cognitive deficits and hypersociability colored by a lack of social fear and (to some extent) savvy — I devoted some space to the “social brain” theory,” which holds that we humans developed our big brains — and perhaps language itself — primarily to manage the complex social dynamics that went with living in large groups. By this figuring, managing social relationships is the most demanding task we face — and gossip is our primary way of creating, maintaining, and evaluating social relationships and of understanding and managing the complex and ever-changing social networks and relations that largely determine our fates.

From that story:

Understanding one another, it seems, is our greatest cognitive challenge. And the only way humans could handle groups of more than 50, Dunbar suggests, was to learn how to talk.

“The conventional view,” Dunbar notes in his book “Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language,” “is that language evolved to enable males to do things like coordinate hunts more effectively. . . . I am suggesting that language evolved to allow us to gossip.”

Dunbar’s assertion about the origin of language is controversial. But you needn’t agree with it to see that talk provides a far more powerful and efficient way to exchange social information than grooming does. In the social-brain theory’s broad definition, gossip means any conversation about social relationships: who did what to whom, who is what to whom, at every level, from family to work or school group to global politics. Defined this way, gossip accounts for about two-thirds of our conversation. All this yakking — murmured asides in the kitchen, gripefests in the office coffee room — yields vital data about changing alliances; shocking machinations; new, wished-for and missed opportunities; falling kings and rising stars; dangerous rivals and potential friends. These conversations tell us too what our gossipmates think about it all, and about us, all of which is crucial to maintaining our own alliances.

For we are all gossiped about, constantly evaluated by two criteria: Whether we can contribute, and whether we can be trusted. This reflects what Ralph Adolphs, a social neuroscientist at the California Institute of Technology, calls the “complex and dynamic interplay between two opposing factors: on the one hand, groups can provide better security from predators, better mate choice and more reliable food; on the other hand, mates and food are available also to competitors from within the group.” You’re part of a team, but you’re competing with team members. Your teammates hope you’ll contribute skills and intergroup competitive spirit — without, however, offering too much competition within the group, or at least not cheating when you do. So, even if they like you, they constantly assess your trustworthiness. They know you can’t afford not to compete, and they worry you might do it sneakily.

if this leaves you curious for more, you can a) read the rest of the passage in the story at the Times site and/or b) read a new story in Scientific American about how gossip, so seemingly trivial, actually plays a vital role in managing our lives.

Excerpt below. Or go straight to The Science of Gossip: Why We Can’t Stop Ourselves.

Only in the past decade or so have psychologists turned their attention toward the study of gossip, partially because it is difficult to define exactly what gossip is. Most researchers agree that the practice involves talk about people who are not present and that this talk is relaxed, informal and entertaining. Typically the topic of conversation also concerns information that we can make moral judgments about. Gossip appears to be pretty much the same wherever it takes place; gossip among co-workers is not qualitatively different from that among friends outside of work. Although everyone seems to detest a person who is known as a %u201Cgossip%u201D and few people would use that label to describe themselves, it is an exceedingly unusual individual who can walk away from a juicy story about one of his or her acquaintances, and all of us have firsthand experience with the difficulty of keeping spectacular news about someone else a secret.

Why does private information about other people represent such an irresistible temptation for us? In his book Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language (Harvard University Press, 1996), psychologist Robin Dunbar of the University of Liverpool in England suggested that gossip is a mechanism for bonding social groups together, analogous to the grooming that is found in primate groups. Sarah R. Wert, now at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and Peter Salovey of Yale University have proposed that gossip is one of the best tools that we have for comparing ourselves socially with others. The ultimate question, however, is, How did gossip come to serve these functions in the first place?