Arachin 15b ~ The Evolutionary Advantages of Gossip

ערכין טו,א

האומר בפיו חמור מן העושה מעשה

One who utters malicious speech with his mouth is a more severe transgressor than one who performs a [forbidden] action

Today the Talmud launches into a long discussion of the sin on lashon hara (lit. evil language), which is most commonly (though not only) understood to mean gossip. It is considered to be a terrible sin, as shown in these examples:

שכן מצינו שלא נתחתם גזר דין על אבותינו במדבר אלא על לשון הרע

אמר ר' יוחנן משום ר' יוסי בן זימרא כל המספר לשון הרע כאילו כפר בעיקר

אמר ר' יוסי בן זימרא כל המספר לשון הרע נגעים באים עליו

ואמר ריש לקיש כל המספר לשון הרע מגדיל עונות עד לשמים

אמר רב חסדא אמר מר עוקבא כל המספר לשון הרע ראוי לסוקלו באבן

רבי אחא ברבי חנינא אומר סיפר אין לו תקנה

תנא דבי רבי ישמעאל כל המספר לשון הרע מגדיל עונות כנגד שלש עבירות עבודת כוכבים וגילוי עריות ושפיכות דמים

במערבא אמרי לשון תליתאי קטיל תליתאי הורג למספרו ולמקבלו ולאומרו 

Our ancestors in the wilderness were only punished because they spoke lashon hara

Speaking lashon hara is like denying a fundamental tenet of Judaism

Speaking lashon hara is punished with leprosy

When you speak lashon hara the sin is magnified all the way to the heavens

It is fitting that a person who spoke lashon hara be executed by stoning

There is no remedy for one who has spoken lashon hara

Anyone who speaks malicious speech increases his sins to the degree that they correspond to the three cardinal transgressions: Idol worship, and forbidden sexual relations, and bloodshed

In the West, Eretz Yisrael, they say: malicious speech about a third party, kills three people. It kills the one who speaks it, the one who hears it, and the one about whom the malicious speech was said.



Because gossip is widespread across different cultures, it has been the subject of academic study. Over fifty years ago, for example, Bruce Cox spent time on a Hopi Reservation of Native Americans in northeastern Arizona, to study, among other things, what it was that Hopi gossip about. It turns out that they mostly talked about oil exploration, roads, and the installation of utility lines in the villages. So not your usual stuff of gossip. But most of the content of gossip that we recognize as such is about people and what they have done. The academic study of all things gossip is now so important that this year Oxford University Press published The Oxford Handbook of Gossip and Reputation, which fills an intellectual gap, “providing an integrated understanding of the foundations of gossip and reputation, as well as outlining a potential framework for future research.” And it can be yours for only $121.

So why do we gossip?

From the academic literature there appear to be four main reasons why people gossip. First, to maintain or strengthen the close relationship between the teller and the hearer. Second, to enable the hearer to learn more about the subject, and third, to harm the subject of the gossip. It is this last reason that is most in keeping with the Jewish aversion to gossip. But there is a fourth reason to gossip that turns out to be vital to the functioning of our human interactions: gossip helps people learn about how to function effectively within the complex and ambiguous structures of human social (and cultural) life.

Why gossiping is good for you

Might this be a positive aspect of gossip? In a review of the literature published in 2004, Roy Baumeister of Florida State University noted that gossip can be used to learn the unwritten rules of social groups and cultures. “Gossip anecdotes communicate rules in narrative form, such as by describing how someone else came to grief by violating social norms. Gossip is thus an extension of observational learning, allowing one to learn from the triumphs and misadventures of people beyond one’s immediate perceptual sphere.”

Modern human society is a rapidly changing, highly complex system. It offers great opportunities but also contains unforeseen risks and problems. Often neither the problem nor its solution can be foreseen reliably and safely. Individuals may therefore have to make their painful way through a problem’s shifting mazes by hard experience.
The way can be smoothed and softened, however, by learning about the adventures and misadventures of others.
— Baumeister F. Zhang L. Vohs D. Gossip as Cultural Learning. Review of General Psychology 2004.8, (2): 111–121.

The original work of psychologists who study gossip was based on the view that it was a form of aggression, and was rooted in the malicious desire to harm others by damaging their reputation. Baumeister concedes that sometimes this may be the case. “People may well seek to harm someone by passing along information that makes him or her look bad, thereby encouraging people to hold a poor opinion of that person (whom we label the target of gossip).” But this might not be the primary motive of the gossiper.

Consider the work of Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary psychologist who directs the the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at the University of Oxford. He has spent much of his academic career studying gossip and has come to the conclusion that gossip is an important form of social communication. It bonds people together as they share information in the form of gossip about themselves and about others in their social community. In humans, gossip has replaced grooming as a way for people to maintain social relationships. “Apes spend hours picking bugs off each other,” wrote Baumeister summarizing Dunbar’s work, “while people spend hours discussing the misadventures of their neighbors, and in both cases the jointly spent time can help cement and maintain social bonds.”

In addition, gossip serves as observational learning of a cultural kind. By hearing about the troubles of others, we may not have to endure costs to ourselves because we will have successfully avoided making the mistake they made. Gossip not only serves to educate the listener about social norms; it also affirms them. And gossip is not just for adults. Children as young as four and five will gossip in a way “which sounds remarkably similar in form to the gossip of adults.”

The Chofetz Chaim, Guardian against Gossip

In 1873 Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan of Radin (1839-1933) published Sefer Chofetz Chaim (The Book of the One who Cherishes Life) on the laws of lashon hara and rechilut (gossip and slander). Yisrael Meir soon came to be known as “The Chofetz Chaim” and his book has remained in print and widely read ever since. The Chofetz Chaim wrote that lashon hara was the most significant cause (אַךְ חֵטְא הַלָּשׁוֹן הוּא עַל כִֻּלּוֹ) of the then prolonged exile of the Jewish people, and that if the magnitude of the rabbinic prohibitions against the practice were really understood, it would “make the hairs of your head stand on end” (וּמִי שֶׁיְּעַיֵּן וְיִתְבּוֹנִן הֵיטֵב בָּהֶם, תִּסְמַּר שַׂעֲרוֹת רֹאשׁוֹ מִגֹּדֶל הֶעָוֹן).

As the Chofetz Chaim makes clear, though, not all negative speech about others falls under the prohibition of lashon hara. He gives this example:

If a person sees that Reuven wants to enter into partnership with Shimon, and Shimon does not know Reuven's nature, and the person knows Reuven well from the past — that he is indifferent to the money of others because of his bad nature — he should warn Shimon from the beginning not to enter into partnership with him, and there is no lashon hara in this.

This example is what some academics have described as helpful gossip - it provides useful knowledge for living in a community that would otherwise have to be learned the hard way. The Chofetz Chaim would agree, but there are many more examples in which such gossip would be prohibited. And in the politically fractured and highly partisan societies in which we are living, there is no doubt that whether or not gossip is an evolutionary necessary tool, the damage that is caused by malicious speech is profound and irreversible. And it’s not just the target of the speech that is damaged, as the today’s page of Talmud teaches. Lashon hara “kills the one who speaks it, the one who hears it, and the one about whom it is said.”

National Speak No Evil Day

In his book Words That Hurt, Words That Heal: How to Choose Words Wisely and Well, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin envisioned a “National Speak No Evil Day” that would eliminate “the pollution of our emotional atmosphere.” It would be a day on which “we would refrain from saying a single nasty comment about others…and will speak about others with the same kindness and fairness that they wish others to exercise when speaking about them.”

In fact a resolution in the US Senate introduced by Senators Connie Mack of Florida and Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut aimed to establish a “National Speak No Evil Day.” The Canadian Member of Parliament Irwin Cotler, made a similar proposal: to declare a day on which “both citizens and politicians would refrain from personal insults and ad-hominem attacks.” So it’s not just the Talmud that attempts to prevent lashon hara. Some of our cherished democracies have had the same laudable aspiration.

Whereas words used unfairly, whether expressed through excessive anger, unfair criticism, public and private humiliation, bigoted comments, cruel jokes, or rumors and malicious gossip, traumatize and destroy many lives;

Whereas an unwillingness or inability of many parents to control what the parents say when angry causes the infliction of often irrevocably damaging verbal abuse on the children;

Whereas bigoted words are often used to dehumanize entire religious, racial, and ethnic groups, and inflame hostility in a manner that may lead to physical attacks;

Whereas the spreading of negative, often unfair, untrue, or exaggerated, comments or rumors about others often inflicts irrevocable damage on the victim of the gossip, the damage epitomized in the expression “character assassination’’; and

Whereas the inability of a person to refrain for 24 hours from speaking unkind and cruel words demonstrates a lack of control as striking as the inability of an alcoholic to refrain for 24 hours from drinking liquor:

Now, therefore, be it Resolved, That the Senate designates May 14, 1996, and May 14, 1997, as ``National Speak No Evil Day’’.

The Senate requests that the President issue a proclamation calling on the people of the United States to observe the days with appropriate ceremonies, activities, and educational endeavors.
— S.Res.151 — 104th Congress (1995-1996)
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