"The hope for informed gossip is that there are distinctive patterns in the errors people make." -- Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow
Writing in The World Until Yesterday, Jared Diamond observes that people who live in traditional societies tend to be nonstop talkers. We've all known people who can't seem to stop talking whenever there is anyone else within earshot. People in hunter-gatherer societies all seem to be that way. Diamond says they talk endlessly about everything and anything. He recalls listening to men having a long conversation about nothing but sweet potatoes. When these people happen to wake up in the middle of the night, they immediately begin talking and don't stop until they fall back to sleep. Every little detail of their lives is discussed and dissected. Diamond wondered why this is so.
He concluded this nonstop conversation must be for a reason. And that reason, he thinks, is self-protection. People in traditional societies live dangerous lives. Their life expectancy is only about 50, and many of them will die from diseases, accidents or homicides. Their chatter may serve to keep them alive longer. The conversation of women when they are out gathering food, for example, alerts wild animals to their presence and may prevent someone from being bitten by a creature caught by surprise.
Then there is the reason suggested by Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow. Gossip may reveal "patterns in the errors people make." When one's life depends upon sweet potatoes, it becomes necessary to know everything there is to know about them. If a member of the group becomes ill, it may be helpful to know what that person was doing before the illness or what treatment may have helped with the recovery. Any detail, no matter how seemingly insignificant, could be important. It could indicate a pattern of errors to avoid.
Diamond says the practice of women everywhere to talk about the men in their lives helps to protect them from making wrong choices with potentially dangerous men. Hearing about the mistakes other women have made helps them make better choices.
Even office gossip, Kahneman suggests, can promote self-protection. How many workers may have been spared a poor career move or an ill-advised office romance just by listening to the chatter around a water cooler?
At the very least, listening to gossip lets us know what kinds of things others like to gossip about, and this can serve as a cautionary tale for avoiding those kinds of behaviors ourselves.