The Upside of Gossip: Social and Psychological Benefits

Gossip isn't all bad, a new study finds.

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Haven’t got anything nice to say? Well, you might want to say it anyway — especially if you think it’ll help ward off some bad behavior.

It seems that gossip may be getting an undeserved bad rap, particularly so-called prosocial gossip, which serves to warn others about dishonest or untrustworthy people — unlike the catty, idle chatter that fuels so many office and schoolyard rumors.

In a small study that looked at the effects of prosocial gossip, psychologists at the University of California, Berkeley, found that engaging in behind-the-back talk actually had meaningful social benefits. It lowered gossipers’ stress, prevented exploitation and promoted more generous behavior.

“Gossip can be bad, but we tend to overlook that it can be good as well,” says social psychologist Robb Willer, a co-author of the study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. “A lot of gossip is driven by concern for others and has positive, social effects.”

In a series of experiments, the researchers asked participants to observe economic “trust games” in which players’ generosity and trust were gauged by how many points or dollars they were willing to share with their opponents. The more points players shared, the greater their potential individual returns — as long as their opponents shared in kind.

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In the first experiment, 52 volunteers were hooked up to heart rate monitors while they looked at the scores of two people who played the game. The scores made it clear that one player had cheated and hoarded all the points.

The participants’ heart rates increased when they noted the cheating, and they reported feeling frustrated by the unfair outcome. When given the opportunity, most observers then decided to send a “gossip note” to the next player, cautioning them not to trust the cheater — a move that helped lower the participants’ heart rates.

“We find that those who engage in this form of gossip are generally driven by sincere desires to help others,” says Willer, noting that it also eased frustration and made people feel better to do so. “More generous people are more likely to engage in this form of gossip.”

Indeed, in a second experiment involving 111 participants, researchers found that those who indicated stronger tendencies toward altruism and fairness on a questionnaire were more likely to feel greater frustration after witnessing cheating in an economic trust game, more likely to send a gossip note that prevented exploitation of other players, and more likely to feel happier afterward.

“The more generous and moral among us are most likely to pass on rumors about untrustworthy people,” says Willer, “and they report doing so because they are concerned about the well-being others.”

A third experiment took the scenario further and required observers to forfeit some of the pay they had received to participate in the study if they wanted to send a gossip note. Out of 45 participants, 34 actually chose to give up their own cash just for the chance to warn other people about a selfish player — even if it didn’t change the outcome for the selfish person.

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In a fourth and final experiment, the researchers recruited 399 participants from 30 U.S. cities via Craigslist to play several rounds of the trust game online. The currency of the game was raffle tickets; players’ tickets would be entered into a drawing for a $50 prize or an iPod. In this situation — with players given ample reason to collect as many tickets as possible — the threat of gossip impelled people to play more generously.

Participants who were told that observers could send gossip notes about their behavior to players in the next round behaved more fairly than those who weren’t threatened with gossip. Interestingly, the threat of gossip had the greatest impact on those who had scored higher on selfish, antisocial tendencies on a questionnaire.

Together, the results of the experiments suggest that gossip can play an important role in maintaining social order — a purpose that may have been evolutionarily beneficial. Citing the theories of British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, the authors write:

[A]s our human ancestors began to live in larger groups, it became impossible for them to personally monitor the behavior of all group members… This gave rise to the evolution of linguistic practices, in particular gossip, as a means for sharing reputational information about the past behavior of group members. Linguistic practices like gossip allowed group members to track one another’s reputation as trustworthy interaction partners, even if they could not personally observe others’ behavior themselves. With reputational concerns almost always present, group members were forced to keep selfish motives in check or risk ostracism.

The current study looked only at gossip motivated by altruism, not the mean-spirited rumor-mongering that damages reputations and tends to breed mistrust. That type of gossip probably doesn’t offer much social benefit, the authors suggest.

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“Malicious gossip is quite real. Sometimes people gossip as a way to get back at their enemies or advance themselves. We didn’t study that form of gossip here, but we suspect that its existence is the reason that gossip as a whole tends to be viewed negatively,” says Willer. “What our research shows is that malicious gossip isn’t the only kind, that a lot of gossip serves a quite important social function.”