The science of gossip (and why everyone does it)

(CNN)People feed off gossip. It's one reason why, in the 1960s, the National Enquirer swapped the gory, gruesome headlines they were known for with celebrity scoops and scandal. The switch gave the tabloid access to supermarket checkout lines and the "enquiring minds" in them.

But it's not just tabloid readers who love to dish. Social scientists have found that everyone is hardwired to pay attention to gossip, and to participate in it. In fact, it's an evolutionary adaptation -- it's become human nature to spill the tea.
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"We're the descendants of people who were good at this," said Frank McAndrew, a psychology professor at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. "In prehistoric times, people who were fascinated by the lives of other people were more successful."
    McAndrew, an expert on human social behavior and gossip, explains that to thrive in the time of cavemen, we had to know what was happening with the people around us.
    "Who is sleeping with whom? Who has power? Who has access to resources? And if you weren't good at that, you weren't very successful," he said.
    Gossip generally has a negative connotation, especially when you think about hurtful rumors, or tabloids and a person's right to privacy.
    But in everyday life, researchers say, our chatter about other people tends to be relatively boring and neutral and serves its own unique purpose.

    52 minutes of gossip a day

    Most researchers define gossip as talking about someone who isn't present and sharing information that isn't widely known.
    And according to an analysis by researchers at the University of California Riverside, the average person spends 52 minutes every day doing exactly that.
    Yet the majority of our gossip is harmless. About 15% of our gabbing involves negative judgment -- or what researchers call "evaluative" -- but outside of that, the average person is just documenting facts, such as "she's stuck late at work," or "he had to go to the hospital." This kind of neutral chitchat actually helps us build friendships, community or learn information that's vital for having a social life, said Megan Robbins, a UC Riverside psychology professor.
    "You can establish a relationship by talking about other people and finding out something about others in the group," she said. "Even for those types of gossip that are evaluative, you're saying, 'I'm trusting you with this information.'"
    Although gossiping is often stereotyped as a feminine, low-class or uneducated pastime, Robbins said that everyone does it.
    "Our data debunked all of the stereotypes," Robbins said. "As a social species, we have to talk about people. We don't live in isolation, and we talk about people who inevitably sometimes are not present."

    Everyone gossips -- and it's not all bad

    The practice becomes purely harmful when it doesn't provide any opportunity for social learning, scientists say, such as with rude comments about someone's appearance or health and comments that are blatantly untrue.
    Where judgmental or negative gossip can be useful is when it provides cultural learning and compels people to behave b