Psst ... you are never going to believe this - but gossiping is good for you

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An 18-month study has found that we spend from a fifth to two-thirds of our daily conversation gossiping, with men indulging as much as women. The findings, published in the journal Human Nature next month, surprised the authors by indicating that gossip was central to human society.

The study by two anthropologists, Kevin Kniffin of the University of Wisconsin and David S Wilson of the State University of New York, discovered that the gossip grapevine branches out through every social group at work and at home. Informal chat, often behind people's backs, provided detailed information and an informal "handbook" on how to behave.

Men were found to gossip for just as long and on the same subjects as women, but men were more egocentric, talking for two-thirds of the time about themselves, while women did so for only a third, preferring to talk about other people. Male and female gossip also sounded different. Women were more animated in their storytelling, piling on detail and encouraging feedback from listeners.

The authors believe that when people huddle to share information about an absent person, it is a deep-seated instinct, the equivalent of "social grooming" among our monkey ancestors. Primates pick fleas from each other, even when clean, helping with relationship-building, group bonding, clarifying social status and reinforcing shared values.

Professor Kniffin noted that gossip increased as a defence mechanism when a badly behaved individual entered a group. Other members would joke about the sex life of the wrongdoer and make cruel jokes about their character. He said: "Gossip is about reputation, and that has been intensely important throughout human history, no matter how primitive or sophisticated a society is. People fear for their own reputations so if they misbehave they have real reason to fear gossip."

Dr Wilson claims gossip can be intensely moral: "There has been a tendency to denigrate gossip as sloppy and unreliable. In fact, gossip is much more sophisticated than people think. We found that if somebody gossips in a self-serving fashion then their reputation plummets along with that of the subject of their gossip. But if somebody gossips in what we call a 'group-serving' fashion, for the good of the group, then their reputation is intact. It's interesting that if the gossiper mixes even a little bit of gratuitous falsehood into the mix, then their reputation will plummet again."