From Tattling to Gossip: The Evolution and Development of Indirect Aggression

Just had an abstract proposal accepted for a special issue of Evolutionary Psychology on “Evolutionary Developmental Psychology” – see It still has to go through peer review (submission deadline is 1st September) but I’m very excited about this because (a) it combines my main teaching interests next year (I’m doing a module on dev psych and an optional one on evol psych), and (b) it means I can integrate my PhD results on preschoolers’ tattling with my postdoctoral work on preadolescents’ conflicts, using my own theoretical framework.

From Tattling to Gossip: The Evolution and Development of Indirect Aggression

Adult humans are characterized by remarkably low rates of intra-group physical aggression, relative to other primates and social carnivores, contributing to our ability to live in large cooperative groups. A key ultimate mechanism supporting this adaptation is indirect reciprocity, and a key proximate mechanism relating to this is indirect aggression: the diversion of aggressive impulses into verbal attacks on someone’s reputation, made to a third party. In this article I trace the developmental processes by which aggressive impulses are trained into increasingly indirect pathways. Two major transitions are postulated: firstly during early childhood, when early forms of indirect aggression appear and direct aggression becomes increasingly inhibited; and secondly during early adolescence, when conceptions of social identity change and overt reporting of offences to authority figures outside the peer group becomes less desirable.
From the age of 2–3, children show a tendency to tattle: they overtly report normative transgressions by puppets in experimental settings, by siblings at home, and by peers at preschool. Tattling correlates with standard measures of indirect aggression, and it is noteworthy that measures of ‘indirect’ aggression among preschoolers focus on overt verbalizations, such as threatening not to invite another child to one’s birthday party. As children grow older, they gradually tattle less, and eventually judge it as appropriate only for serious transgressions: in adolescence, those who tattle may be socially derogated, just as adult whistleblowers are ostracized by their in-groups. Measures of indirect aggression among adolescents focus on more covert behaviour such as negative gossip. I argue that this is because adolescence is associated with a realignment of social identity, caused ultimately by new ontogenetic adaptations for mate selection. As children grow older, building reputation within the peer group becomes more important, and relying on adult intervention is no longer an adaptive strategy.

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