I have this little problem: I tend to think that people are gossiping or talking about me behind my back. It’s totally paranoid and ridiculous, but I wanted to know if I was alone. So, I asked our Twitter followers if they agreed with this statement: “I often think people are talking about me behind my back.”
30% of people replied True and 70% said False. There is a third of you who also experiences this paranoia. The question is, is there any science to this?
Gossiping is in Our Genes
It turns out the 30% of people like me who are paranoid have good reason to be. Researchers estimate that anywhere from 65% to 80% of conversations are gossip. Those statistics are based on the percentage of conversations that we have about people–both positive and negative. As social creatures, we focus a lot of our attention on other people and that comes through in what we talk about.
So, chances are, people are talking about you behind your back but it’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Psychologists theorize that talking about other people is a habit that likely evolved as a safety mechanism. Thousands of years ago, when humans lived in small hunter-gather societies, people’s survival depended on them knowing who they could trust and who they should avoid. Gossiping helped people keep tabs on who was the most volatile and likely to betray members of the group, who was the most dependable and whose families’ were the healthiest and best to reproduce with.
What’s even more powerful is that our brains pay more attention to people we’ve heard negative gossip about. Talking about others behind their back gives people a greater sense of awareness so they can be on guard around potentially threatening individuals.
Warning: Think about the consequences before talking about your drama. Telling others about the annoying and/or hurtful things people have done to you can turn a temporary disagreement into a long-term problem where people struggle to feel comfortable around the person you spoke negatively about.
Talking About Others Fights Uncertainty
Another reason researchers believe that people love to talk about others behind their backs is the sense of certainty that it provides. Given the huge role that people play in our lives, we have an innate need to be able to understand and predict people’s behavior. Telling stories about other people while speculating about and/or filling in the blanks of what we don’t know helps us make sense of the individuals in our social circles.
It also encourages pro-social, conformist behavior. Stanford researchers discovered that our natural tendency to criticize people behind their backs fosters group unity because people fear the social consequences of acting in ways that may cause rumors to spread about them.
While this limits individualism, groups depend on knowing that their members are going to act roughly according to their norms. When one member chooses to behave differently, it lessens the group’s sense of stability. Gossiping is a way for people to rationalize the individual’s surprising actions and discourage other people from creating a similar upset.