The Theology of Everyday Life: Is Gossip a Sin?, Part 1, "The Food of the Brain"

Here's the deal. I like talking about people.

I'm willing to admit this because as I psychologist I know this: We all like talking about people. It is who we are as a species.

Over the last decade or so, psychologists have been increasingly interested in the role and function of gossip. As I've indicated, we are preoccupied with each other. We talk about each other. We're curious about each other. We like reality shows. We like soap operas. We like novels. Theatre. Biographies. Poetry. And on and on. We are riveted by the human drama writ large and small.

And gossip is a part of all this. Until recently, gossip didn't seem like a subject worthy of scientific attention. Gossip seemed like a ubiquitous human foible of no real significance. But some psychologists have changed all that. In fact, some have gone so far as to suggest that gossip is the goal of the brain. That the brain was built to gossip.

Now that will need some explaining.

First, you have to understand that these theories come from an evolutionary paradigm. Given this evolutionary perspective, there is a mystery about the human brain. Simply put, why are humans so smart?

Mother nature is very conservative. Wasteful traits tend to get weeded out over time. So what is the purpose of our very expensive (from a metabolic standpoint) brains? Clearly, intelligence is adaptive. But we need only so much intelligence to forage for food and live long enough to mate. But, in what seems an adaptive mystery, humans have way more intelligence than that. I mean, we're the species that invented jazz and existentialism. Our vast intelligence seems to outstrip, by many orders of magnitude, the adaptive challenges of our ecosystems. After eating and mating, we have, cognitively speaking, a lot left over to play with. Why?

Well, when ethologists study our closest primate relatives, the chimpanzees, they find this: Chimps seem too intelligent as well. The gap isn't as big as with us, but it's there. You can train a chimp to do amazing things. There is a lot of intelligence siting there. But if you look at a chimp's ecosystem, they don't have to struggle much for food or deal with significant predation (humans excluded). So, why are they so darn smart?

What you notice in both chimps and humans is this: We live in incredibly complex social arrangements. And it appears that what all that intelligence is for is navigating this social ecosystem successfully. That is, the brain in primates has developed not to navigate around, let's say, a rock in the middle of a road. You don't need much intelligence to note the rock and plot a course around it. No, the primate brain is less concerned with the rock in the road than with the rival in the road. How do you get around THAT GUY? And, since THAT GUY is also a thinking, strategic being, you'll need a lot of intelligence to navigate successfully around that relational obstacle.

In short, we're so smart because we're so social.

Now, think also on this. The brain is an informational vacuum cleaner. We just crave and soak up information. Some have said that our essential diet isn't meat, but the scoop. The story. The news. We aren't carnivores. We're infovores.

But as a college professor I'm acutely aware that the information we seek isn't philosophy or science. We don't innately crave the stuff I dish out in a college class. I've seen those faces in my statistics class. Those kids are forcing themselves to listen. But the minute I start to tell a story, well, they are interested again. Why? Because the information we truly crave is social information. Social information is the food your brain feeds on.

And all this means that the brain was built to gossip. Gossip is as biological as eating.

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

5 thoughts on “The Theology of Everyday Life: Is Gossip a Sin?, Part 1, "The Food of the Brain"”

  1. This is fascinating. And it makes sense. We do crave social information about other people. Although - I wonder - are females biologically more "wired" to gossip than males? Because that's certainly the stereotype. :)

  2. I can't tell for sure yet, but do you really mean to suggest that there is a general valid inference from "evolutionarily helpful" to "not sinful"? Because this seems to me a) ludicrous, and b) if that's the definition of "sin," Christianity flat out goes right out the window. If your "theology" supervenes entirely on preexisting biological facts, then you are in fact a Spinozist, not a Christian.

  3. Micah,
    I'm not yet making claims about gossip and sin. I'm moving toward that. Right now, I'm just setting the table for the theological discussion by citing the current views on gossip in the psychological literature. And that literature, for better or worse, comes from an evolutionary paradigm. My last two posts are a kind of informal literature review. My synthesis of these perspectives with Biblical and theological positions is still to come. I'll answer the question of "Is gossip a sin?" in the last post of this series.

    I appreciate your interactions with the posts.


Leave a Reply