Psst. Have you heard the latest thing about him? And what she said about it?
Chances are you’d be dying to know about that delectable tidbit of gossip offered by a confidant. We just can’t seem to get our fill of such morsels about other people in our social circles.
Science tells us why: gossip is a kind of social grooming that helps our human networks hang together. We share news about friends and relatives, which solidifies our relationships with them. We dish about cheaters or people who wrong someone close to us, which helps to keep potential malefactors in line. We even learn why we are mesmerized by celebrities, whom we mistakenly feel we know intimately because they are in our living rooms on the TV every night.
As the power of gossip suggests, the words we choose can shape how we individually and collectively consider complex issues. If we speak of the “war” against terrorism, for instance, that implies battlefield solutions. But if we talk about it as a “crime” or a “disease,” that suggests approaches that are different—and perhaps ultimately more effective—for combating an intractable nonstate enemy. Each term has benefits and drawbacks, and they may be most effective when used in combination, as experts Arie W. Kruglanski, Martha Crenshaw, Jerrold M. Post and Jeff Victoroff explain in “Talking about Terrorism.”
One of the pleasures of reading Scientific American Mind is getting the latest thinking about how our minds work firsthand from the researcher authors themselves. So I’m excited to introduce the newest addition to our regular scientist contributors, neuroscientist Christof Koch. Go to his probing column, Consciousness Redux.
Note: This article was originally published with the title, "Word Power".