Hot Gossip!

Episodes

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0120141128

012014112820150101 (R4)

If language elevates us above other animals, why does human society seem to spend so much time gossiping? Perhaps it's because without gossip there would be no society and language would be much less interesting. In the first of two programmes, Geoff Watts explores our fascination with small talk and chit chat. Where did gossip come from, why did it evolve and how has it changed (and changed us) in the digital age?

If your guilty pleasure is rifling through gossip magazines, then here's a reassuring message: you are merely fulfilling an evolutionary drive. The brain is 'hard-wired' to be fascinated by gossip - which not only helps members of your social group to bond but can also help to police those in the group who transgress. Biologist call them 'free-riders' and in large social groups, free-riders can wreak havoc with the society unless they're policed - by gossip.

For anthropologist Robin Dunbar, author of the now classic text, 'Grooming, Gossip and The Evolution of Language', it is not the pearls of wisdom that makes the world go round but everyday tittle tattle: "we are social beings and our world is cocooned in the interests and minutiae of everyday social life. They fascinate us beyond nature". Gossip, which Dunbar says can be traced back to social grooming in apes, makes up around two-thirds of general conversation according to his research. Without gossip says Dunbar "there can be no society".

Of course, historically, culturally, morally gossip has rarely been seen as anything but good. In Judaism where derogatory speech about another person has a special name - 'Lashon Hara' or 'evil tongue', it is, says Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, "...regarded it as one of the worst of all sins'. Gossip is said to kill three people, "the one who says it, the one he/she says it about, and the one who listens in. Gossip is not just a sinful act but one that contaminates others". Nowhere is this more evident than recent cases of internet trolling and cyber bullying. "we need a new ethic" argues Sacks. But are we even capable of changing our nasty habits?

0120141128

If language elevates us above other animals, why does human society seem to spend so much time gossiping? Perhaps it's because without gossip there would be no society and language would be much less interesting. In the first of two programmes, Geoff Watts explores our fascination with small talk and chit chat. Where did gossip come from, why did it evolve and how has it changed (and changed us) in the digital age?

If your guilty pleasure is rifling through gossip magazines, then here's a reassuring message: you are merely fulfilling an evolutionary drive. The brain is 'hard-wired' to be fascinated by gossip - which not only helps members of your social group to bond but can also help to police those in the group who transgress. Biologist call them 'free-riders' and in large social groups, free-riders can wreak havoc with the society unless they're policed - by gossip.

For anthropologist Robin Dunbar, author of the now classic text, 'Grooming, Gossip and The Evolution of Language', it is not the pearls of wisdom that makes the world go round but everyday tittle tattle: "we are social beings and our world is cocooned in the interests and minutiae of everyday social life. They fascinate us beyond nature". Gossip, which Dunbar says can be traced back to social grooming in apes, makes up around two-thirds of general conversation according to his research. Without gossip says Dunbar "there can be no society".

Of course, historically, culturally, morally gossip has rarely been seen as anything but good. In Judaism where derogatory speech about another person has a special name - 'Lashon Hara' or 'evil tongue', it is, says Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, "...regarded it as one of the worst of all sins'. Gossip is said to kill three people, "the one who says it, the one he/she says it about, and the one who listens in. Gossip is not just a sinful act but one that contaminates others". Nowhere is this more evident than recent cases of internet trolling and cyber bullying. "we need a new ethic" argues Sacks. But are we even capable of changing our nasty habits?

0220141205

022014120520150102 (R4)

In the second of two programmes, Geoff Watts continues to explore the science, history and cultural implications of gossip.

Gossip has a bad reputation and for the most part, deservedly so. Yet, on-going research appears to suggest that gossip does serve a useful purpose. Not least because our brains may be hard wired for it. Researchers in Boston have used a technique known as binocular rivalry (showing different images to left and right eye at the same time) to suggest that gossip acts as an early warning system, that the brain automatically redirects your attention onto people you've heard negative remarks about. Even though this process happens at a sub-conscious level, your brain is sifting through and weeding out anyone in your surroundings that you may be have good reason to distrust. Elsewhere, researchers in Manchester have been analysing what makes gossip memorable and are now scanning subjects brains to see if there are specific gossip networks which light up. From preliminary results it appears gossip activates areas in the brain similar to those that produce feelings of pleasure and reward. Next they plan to scan their subjects' brains as they tweet.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, in many of these experiments, it is celebrity gossip that tends to produce the largest response. Thanks to what one commentator calls the perfect storm of 24-hour news, reality TV and social media, the all-pervasive celebrity gossip industry exploits our endless appetite for information about people we will never meet. But could even celebrity gossip serve a purpose? Or are we gorging ourselves on trivia whilst ignoring the plight of those closest to us? And can and should anything be done to stem the negative impacts of gossip in a digital age?

022014120520150102 (R4)

In the second of two programmes, Geoff Watts continues to explore the science, history and cultural implications of gossip.

Gossip has a bad reputation and for the most part, deservedly so. Yet, on-going research appears to suggest that gossip does serve a useful purpose. Not least because our brains may be hard wired for it. Researchers in Boston have used a technique known as binocular rivalry (showing different images to left and right eye at the same time) to suggest that gossip acts as an early warning system, that the brain automatically redirects your attention onto people you've heard negative remarks about. Even though this process happens at a sub-conscious level, your brain is sifting through and weeding out anyone in your surroundings that you may be have good reason to distrust. Elsewhere, researchers in Manchester have been analysing what makes gossip memorable and are now scanning subjects brains to see if there are specific gossip networks which light up. From preliminary results it appears gossip activates areas in the brain similar to those that produce feelings of pleasure and reward. Next they plan to scan their subjects' brains as they tweet.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, in many of these experiments, it is celebrity gossip that tends to produce the largest response. Thanks to what one commentator calls the perfect storm of 24-hour news, reality TV and social media, the all-pervasive celebrity gossip industry exploits our endless appetite for information about people we will never meet. But could even celebrity gossip serve a purpose? Or are we gorging ourselves on trivia whilst ignoring the plight of those closest to us? And can and should anything be done to stem the negative impacts of gossip in a digital age?

02 LAST20141205

In the second of two programmes, Geoff Watts continues to explore the science, history and cultural implications of gossip.

Gossip has a bad reputation and for the most part, deservedly so. Yet, on-going research appears to suggest that gossip does serve a useful purpose. Not least because our brains may be hard wired for it. Researchers in Boston have used a technique known as binocular rivalry (showing different images to left and right eye at the same time) to suggest that gossip acts as an early warning system, that the brain automatically redirects your attention onto people you've heard negative remarks about. Even though this process happens at a sub-conscious level, your brain is sifting through and weeding out anyone in your surroundings that you may be have good reason to distrust. Elsewhere, researchers in Manchester have been analysing what makes gossip memorable and are now scanning subjects brains to see if there are specific gossip networks which light up. From preliminary results it appears gossip activates areas in the brain similar to those that produce feelings of pleasure and reward. Next they plan to scan their subjects' brains as they tweet.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, in many of these experiments, it is celebrity gossip that tends to produce the largest response. Thanks to what one commentator calls the perfect storm of 24-hour news, reality TV and social media, the all-pervasive celebrity gossip industry exploits our endless appetite for information about people we will never meet. But could even celebrity gossip serve a purpose? Or are we gorging ourselves on trivia whilst ignoring the plight of those closest to us? And can and should anything be done to stem the negative impacts of gossip in a digital age?