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Socio-Sexuality, Self-Reported Physical Formidability, and the Dark Triad: Predictors of Gossip Behavior and Cognitions


While indirect aggression (IA)—covert and anonymous forms of social manipulation meant to damage a target’s reputation—has received some empirical attention from evolutionary scholars, the moderating role of individual difference variables relevant to mate competition in shaping IA behavior and cognitions remains understudied. Specifically, individual differences including socio-sexuality (i.e., one’s attitudes and behaviors regarding casual sex) and dark triad personality traits (i.e., narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy) have not been tested as moderators of gossip behavior (i.e., sharing) and cognitions (i.e., memory for gossip and perceptions of its juiciness), despite these individual differences having been shown to moderate intrasexual competition. Further, existing research is largely focused on females, including social evaluations of rival females and the role of intrasexual competition in promoting these outcomes. Thus, while IA is more common among younger versus older women and that it confers mating advantages on the perpetrator at the expense of the victim, relatively little is known about males’ use of IA in male intrasexual competition, despite the theoretical plausibility of IA in male intrasexual competition. Finally, little research has considered the role of gossip specifically in the perpetration of IA in mate competition, despite the fact that gossip is likely to be the key conduit for IA due to its predominance in human social life.

Given all of this, the present studies examine gossip, drawing from evolutionary theories including sexual selection and sexual strategies theories to test several predictors of gossip in an intrasexual mate competition context, including sex, socio-sexuality, dark triad personality traits, and physical formidability—all of which affect mate competition. Further, the two studies reported herein assessed the moderating role of socio-sexuality and dark triad personality traits in shaping gossip behaviors and cognitions. Ultimately, this dissertation furthers our understanding of the role of individual differences in shaping gossip behavior and cognitions from an evolutionary perspective.

Using a survey design, Study 1 examined predictors of one gossip-related behavior, specifically, frequency of self-reported gossip sharing. It was predicted that sexually restricted females and unrestricted males would engage in more gossip, particularly when they also possessed dark triad traits. Recent research suggests that dark triad traits may have evolved because they facilitate inter- and intrasexual competition. These traits should therefore be most highly operative among individuals who are involved in higher levels of intrasexual competition (namely, more sexually restricted females and unrestricted males). Counter to this hypothesis, Study 1 showed that females (but not males) with more unrestricted socio-sexualities reported more frequent gossip sharing. Narcissism and Machiavellianism were associated with more frequent gossip sharing as hypothesized, but psychopathy was not. Socio-sexuality and sex moderated the narcissism-gossip sharing relationship, such that effects of narcissism were stronger for more sexually unrestricted females, contrary to the hypothesis. This suggests that psychopathic individuals might make use of direct aggression tactics more frequently than they use IA, and that unrestricted females may face intense mate competition giving rise to frequent gossip sharing. This finding regarding unrestricted females may have arisen due to a sex-ratio bias in the sample—perhaps females in the sample face intense competition due to the presence of more females than males in this particular mating pool, and accordingly adopt unrestricted strategies to compete.

Study 1 also tested a proposed Male Formidability hypothesis, which assumes that IA is more likely to be perpetrated by less physically formidable men who would suffer greater physical costs than more formidable men in direct intrasexal competition. The findings supported the hypothesis, showing that self-reported less physically formidable males reported more frequent gossip sharing than more physically formidable males. Ultimately, Study 1 highlights the importance of physical formidability, socio-sexuality, narcissism, and Machiavellianism as they relate to male and female gossip sharing in a mate competition context.

If gossip use has evolved at least in part because of its role in intrasexual competition, then there should be cognitive adaptations for evaluating and tracking gossip. Study 2 experimentally assessed two gossip-related cognitions, namely: (1) enhanced memory for threatening romantic gossip and (2) heightened perceptions of its juiciness (i.e., interestingness). Female participants were exposed to a romantic or control prime, followed by a romantic gossip message depicting potential female rivals of varying levels of threat (i.e., low, moderate, or high). It was predicted that as gossip threat level increased, so too would memory for gossip content and perceptions of its juiciness, particularly when exposed to a romantic prime. In line with this hypothesis, high threat gossip was generally perceived to be juiciest. Counter to prediction, however, these effects emerged under the control rather than the romantic prime. Failing to support the prediction, moderate threat gossip was better remembered than high threat gossip in a recognition memory test, indicating that it may be most threatening of all due to its ambiguity. There was no effect of gossip threat level on recall, suggesting that remembering details of gossip is less important than remembering the “gist.”

It was hypothesized that memory and juiciness effects would be moderated by individual differences relevant to intrasexual mate competition (i.e., socio-sexuality, dark triad personality traits) such that sexually restricted females and those with more dark triad traits would better remember high threat gossip and perceive it to be particularly juicy. Supporting the hypothesis, more narcissistic individuals perceived gossip to be juicier on average. Counter to predictions, more narcissistic individuals had better recall for low relative to high threat gossip, highly psychopathic individuals perceived moderately threatening gossip to be particularly juicy, and those low in psychopathy better recalled low relative to moderate and high threat gossip. Findings with respect to narcissism and recall indicate that narcissists may see positive, non-malicious gossip (e.g., that portrays a potential romantic rival as “friendly” and “nice”) as particularly threatening to their social status and hence mating prospects. Findings with respect to psychopathy and juiciness again point to the possibility that moderate threat gossip is the most threatening of all due to its ambiguity. Taken together, these findings indicate that narcissism, psychopathy, and socio-sexuality differentially moderate gossip cognitions. Perhaps most importantly, the study demonstrates the importance of psychopathy and narcissism in particular in affecting memory and perceptions of gossip juiciness, ultimately suggesting that higher levels of psychopathy and narcissism are strongly associated with intensified sexual competition, and accordingly, cognitions enabling successful aggression perpetration.

Together, both studies highlight the importance of narcissism as a predictor of gossip behavior and cognitions. Of the dark triad traits, it emerged most consistently, shaping recall, juiciness perceptions, and self-reported gossip sharing, and providing further evidence that it is sexually selected for use in mate competition. This work also highlights differences between each dark triad attribute with respect to gossip, indicating that individuals’ use of gossip as an IA tactic differs—sometimes dramatically—as a function of their personalities. Finally, these studies indicate that socio-sexuality and physical formidability interact with sex to shape gossip outcomes, which reflects diverging concerns of males and females on the mating market. For instance, while formidability is highly relevant to mate competition for males, affecting their decision to use IA, it is not particularly relevant for females. Overall, these studies take an important first step toward disentangling individual difference predictors of gossip sharing and cognitions from an evolutionary perspective.

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