American Psychological Society annual conference: Gossip is a search for truth

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THE DIVORCE rate would be lower if people learnt to become better gossips. Psychologists say gossip is not a cathartic past-time or one that increases intimacy between friends but a highly evolved and sophisticated way of sorting the suitability of potential mates.

Men have traditionally regarded women's propensity to gossip as a sign of intellectual inferiority. Research shows the "trivia" is a vital part of the search for a suitable mate.

The research, presented at the Denver conference, found men gossiped more about women's level of sexual activity and women gossiped more about men's spending power. Psychologists conducted two studies of conversations between 175 men and women. They found that women were more likely to gossip than men, and conversations about sex were more gossip-like for both men and women.

Women were 40 per cent more likely to talk about other women's promiscuity than their spending power. But they were more interested in men's attitudes to spending than their sexual prowess. They were 30 per cent more likely to gossip about men who spent their money freely than those who were seen as tight-fisted.

Men were far more interested in women's sexual behaviour than their spending patterns. They were 30 per cent more likely to talk about whether a woman was careful or choosy about who she had sex with than if she was tight with money.

"Gossip is an evolved way of assessing and manipulating people's reputations. In evolutionary terms, sexual behaviour is central to women's reputations and resources are central to men's reputations," said Don Sharpsteen, from the psychology department at the University of Missouri at Rolla, and author of the study.

"Sperms is cheap, eggs are not. Women have relatively little to lose if a mate directs some of his sperm elsewhere but a lot to lose if he directs his resources elsewhere. In contrast, men risk wasting their precious resources on another man's genes if their mate has sex with another man.

"There is a word for gossip in nearly every culture," said Dr Sharpsteen. "It is used to find out about prospective mates behaviour but can also be used to damage the reputations of potential rivals.

"This could be one of the reasons that women talk a lot about other women's promiscuity - to create the impression that they are less suitable mates."