Oscar Wilde said the only thing worse than being talked about was not being talked about. Nevertheless, chit-chat about others has a dubious reputation. That’s unfair, say psychologists and social scientists, who argue that gossip is a useful communication tool, conferring benefits to those involved. Some research even suggests gossip had evolutionary advantages—a means of maintaining social norms as human groups grew in size.
A recent study in Current Biology strengthens the case for gossip’s value. Gossip enables social connection and helps people learn indirectly about the world based on other people’s experiences, the research found. “We tend to think of gossip as just being disparaging, and we view people who gossip often as negative,” says study author Eshin Jolly, a social neuroscientist at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. “But gossip is a tool that we have developed. It’s not necessarily a bad thing for people to be exchanging gossip because it can be helpful.”
To investigate the benefits of gossip, Jolly and his Dartmouth brain sciences colleague Luke Chang invited volunteers to play an online game designed to test the tension between selfish and cooperative behavior. Divided into groups of six, the volunteers played 10 rounds of the game, in which they were each given 100 points; points could be exchanged for real dollars at the end of the game (50 points per dollar). Players could choose to keep the points or invest some into a group fund. At the end of each round, the total fund was multiplied by 1.5 and then divided equally between all six players, irrespective of whether they contributed or not.
This type of experiment, called a public goods game, is a staple of psychology. As participants see how much other players contribute (or don’t) to the fund, they typically change their own behavior accordingly.
But Jolly and Chang introduced a couple of twists. In some games, players could not see how many points some of their rivals were choosing to pay in. And in other games, two players were allowed to exchange private messages with each other—in other words, they were able to gossip.
The gossiping players were not told what to say; some chose to discuss tactics, send brief expressions, or just swap emoticons. At the end of each game, each player said how much they liked each of the other people in their group and how willing they were to play with them again.
The role of gossip was apparent in several respects. First, in games when one of the players who was allowed to communicate could not directly see the behavior of others, the pair was more likely to gossip about that behavior. The proportion of messages that discussed other players rose from 14.9 to 21.7%. Second, players used that kind of gossip to vicariously learn about the behavior of those they could not observe and to adjust their own tactics accordingly: When communication was possible, players were more likely to change their own behavior in response to the past actions of rivals they could not directly see.
A third implication was that groups that gossiped made more money overall. Researchers who run public goods games typically see volunteers reduce the amount of money they contribute to the shared group fund as the rounds progress. But the new study showed that gossip slowed this effect. “We see a much shallower decline in cooperation over time when exchanging gossip is a possibility in the game,” Jolly says.
Finally, the ratings at the end of each game showed that gossiping partners were more likely to score each other highly and that they were more likely to form similar impressions of the other players.
According to social scientist Elena Martinescu, the study takes research on the topic of gossip to the next level by assessing both implications for behavior toward the target person and changes in social bonding between the gossipers. “We knew about these functions of gossip from other studies, but now they put it all in one paradigm and that’s really nice,” says Martinescu, who studies gossip at the Free University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands.
The study results also emphasize the chasm between how academic experts see benefits to gossip while the wider public views it as negative, says Konrad Rudnicki, a gossip researcher at the University of Antwerp, Belgium. “Gossip has a very bad reputation in the general public, whereas in social science, gossip has exceedingly good press right now as a behavior guided towards sociality,” Rudnicki says. “One does have to be mindful of the infinite potential of humans to bully each other and to gossip about things that will not be beneficial,” he adds, while noting that “maybe we should emphasize the positive aspects a bit more.”
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