Long disparaged as a guilty pleasure or even a sin, gossip may have a positive social function.
Reading gossip magazines is the highlight of many visits to the doctor’s office or hair salon. The private lives of others compel us. But we are often embarrassed to admit we subscribe to InTouch or visit PerezHilton.com daily.
Society largely views gossip as a negative and immoral pastime. Colonial America punished gossips by forcing them to wear helmets that resembled iron cages with metal prods that jutted into the tongue. And in Jewish tradition, gossip (lashon hara) is considered a serious sin.
But new research reveals that gossip can sometimes be a good thing. And it may be an integral part of how we cooperate.
For the good of the group
Economists and social scientists study why people work together in groups and pool resources even when they might benefit more if they acted selfishly. They have discovered that the possibility of being the target of gossip and consequently shunned from the group may motivate people to act in a more selfless, prosocial way.
A team of Stanford University researchers, including Matthew Feinberg, Ph.D., who is now an Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto, tested the theory by asking students to play an online game where different players contributed to a community pot. The students were given the opportunity to gossip about other players, and could even choose to shun a player based on the gossip reports.
If a player was stingy in one round of the game and her fellow players gossiped about her and shunned her, she became much more generous in subsequent rounds. She cooperated.
No one wants to be the pariah
“When people were ostracized, they learned their lesson,” Feinberg said. The ability to kick people out of the next rounds of the game had the largest effect, spurring the most generosity. When kicking a player out of the game was a possibility, players gave much more freely.
In some cases, Feinberg says, it seems that gossiping is a good thing for the group. “Sometimes we gossip out of real concern for our friends. We want to warn them of bad actors and immoral characters so they won’t be victimized.”
Gossip is good?
Sharing this kind of information promotes the good of the community around us. So at least in this case, gossip is considered prosocial. It’s a good thing.
Prosocial gossip has a potential added bonus. It not only serves to report the facts of an event, but it also conveys what the gossiper thinks is morally correct. It communicates her moral code.
If my coworker tells me that the boss takes his wife out every Friday on the company credit card, she’s not only telling me what happened, but she also implies that she disagrees with it. She believes that to be crossing an ethical line in the workplace. Feinberg and his colleagues are working on studies documenting gossip’s role in communicating morality.
The darker side
But, as we all know, there is another side to gossip. Tabloid magazines don’t add much to the collective morality of our communities.
“If we’re spreading information within a moral domain, that’s one thing. But if we’re talking about looks or something a person can’t control that’s really a form of bullying,” Feinberg said.
According to Feinberg, his study is not a permission to speak ill of others. He warns, even if we gossip for the right, prosocial reasons, it’s highly likely the target of that gossip might not like it. “Gossip is probably in the eye of the beholder.”
Do you gossip among friends? Let us know what you think in the comments section, below!
Meredith Knight is a science journalist based in Austin, Texas.