File photo: Women were significantly more likely to talk about how others looked, their behaviour and problems at work. Picture: Supplied

London - Having a gossip is one of life’s small pleasures. But women who indulge in it may be trying to discredit their female rivals, psychologists say.

A study suggests some use it as a tactic to badmouth others who may be competing for male attention.

Unlike men, who tend to talk about others’ wealth and athleticism, women focused much more on physical appearance, a study of 290 people found.

University of Ottawa researchers say this could be because men look for physical attractiveness in a partner, so women who criticise their rivals’ looks are trying to "throw them off the scent".

Writing in the journal Evolutionary Psychological Science, they state: "Women reported gossiping significantly more than men. This result indirectly suggests that women may favour gossip as their primary means of competing against others for mates."

The academics interviewed volunteers aged 17 to 30 and found that both men and women who competed for the attention of the opposite sex were more likely to gossip. However, women did it much more.

Women were significantly more likely to talk about how others looked, their behaviour and problems at work. Men were more preoccupied with the successes, achievements and salaries of other people. The study suggests this may be because women are looking for men with "reproductively relevant resources" such as wealth and ambition, so men use these conversation topics to undermine their rivals.

Women may denigrate others’ looks, they add, because men’s caveman instincts cause them to use physical attractiveness to judge if women are fit to bear their children.

Study author Adam Davis said: "Gossip is intimately linked to mate competition and not solely the product of a female gender stereotype that may be viewed as pejorative. It is a highly evolved social skill essential for interpersonal relationships, rather than a flaw of character."