Gossip may even make us better people. A team of Dutch researchers reported that hearing gossip about others made research subjects more reflective; positive gossip inspired self-improvement efforts, and negative gossip made people prouder of themselves. [6] In another study, the worse participants felt upon hearing a piece of negative gossip, the more likely they were to say they had learned a lesson from it. [7] Negative gossip can also have a prosocial effect on those who are gossiped about. Researchers at Stanford and UC Berkeley found that once people were ostracized from a group due to reputed selfishness, they reformed their ways in an attempt to regain the approval of the people they had alienated. [8]

By far the most positive assessment of gossip, though, comes courtesy of the anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar. Once upon a time, in Dunbar's account, our primate ancestors bonded through grooming, their mutual back–scratching ensuring mutual self-defense in the event of attack by predators. But as hominids grew more intelligent and more social, their groups became too large to unite by grooming alone. That's where language—and gossip, broadly defined—stepped in. [9] Dunbar argues that idle chatter with and about others gave early humans a sense of shared identity and helped them grow more aware of their environment, thus incubating the complex higher functioning that would ultimately yield such glories of civilization as the Talmud, Pascal, and Ann Landers.

So the next time you're tempted to dish the dirt, fear not—you may actually be promoting cooperation, boosting others' self-esteem, and performing the essential task of the human family. That's what I heard, anyway.

The Studies:

[1] Engelmann et al., "Pre-schoolers Affect Others' Reputations Through Prosocial Gossip" (British Journal of Developmental Psychology, Sept. 2016)

[2] Nicholas Emler, "Gossip, Reputation, and Social Adaptation," in Good Gossip (University Press of Kansas, 1994)

[3] Blythe Holbrooke, Gossip (St. Martin's, 1983)

[4] Dunbar et al., "Human Conversational Behavior" (Human Nature, Sept. 1997)

[5] Bosson et al., "Interpersonal Chemistry Through Negativity" (Personal Relationships, June 2006)

[6] Martinescu et al., "Tell Me the Gossip" (Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Dec. 2014)

[7] Baumeister et al., "Gossip as Cultural Learning" (Review of General Psychology, June 2004)

[8] Feinberg et al., "Gossip and Ostracism Promote Cooperation in Groups" (Psychological Science, March 2014)

[9] Robin Dunbar, Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language (Harvard University Press, 1998)

This article appears in the July/August 2018 print edition with the headline "Gossip Is Good."

Ben Healy is a writer and former Atlantic deputy managing editor.