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London - Passing on juicy information about others might be dismissed as idle chatter, but gossip can be good for society, scientists claim.
A study revealed the exchange of hearsay can shame bullies and cheats into changing their ways.
Conventional wisdom holds that gossip and social exclusion are always malicious, undermining trust and morale in groups.
But sharing this kind of “reputational information” could have benefits for society, according to the new study.
Researchers divided more 216 men and women into teams of four, asking them to play a game and make financial choices that would benefit their respective groups.
They were given tokens that could be donated to a fund for the good of the group, and the rules of the game meant those who did not give anything ended up with more money than those who paid into the central pot.
Before moving on to the next round with an entirely new group, people taking part could gossip about their previous group members.
Future group members then received that information and could decide to exclude - ostracise - a suspect participant from the group before deciding to make their next financial choices.
Players were allowed to warn others about such freeloaders and exclude them from future rounds.
Participants readily gossiped about each others’ reputations and ostracised those who hoarded their cash.
The study, in the journal Psychological Science, found those who were frozen out learned their lesson and were more generous when brought back into the fold.
The researchers found that when people learn about the behaviour of others through gossip, they use this information to align with those deemed co-operative.
Dr Matthew Feinberg, of Stanford University, said: “Groups that allow their members to gossip sustain co-operation and deter selfishness better than those who don’t.”
“And groups do even better if they can gossip and ostracise untrustworthy members. While both of these behaviours can be misused, our findings suggest that they also serve very important functions for groups and society.”
Co-author Doctor Robb Willer, an associate professor of sociology at Stanford, said: “By removing defectors, more cooperative individuals can more freely invest in the public good without fear of exploitation.”
However, there is hope for the cast-offs. When people know that others may gossip about them - and experience the resulting social exclusion - they tend to learn from the experience and reform their behaviour by cooperating more in future group settings.
In contrast, highly anonymous groups - such as many internet message boards - lack accountability and thereby allow anti-social behaviour to thrive.
Dr Willer said: “Those who do not reform their behaviour, behaving selfishly despite the risk of gossip and ostracism, tended to be targeted by other group members who took pains to tell future group members about the person’s untrustworthy behaviour.
“These future groups could then detect and exclude more selfish individuals, ensuring they could avoid being taken advantage of.”
He added: “Despite negative connotations, the pairing of the capacity to gossip and to ostracise undesirable individuals from groups has a strong positive effect on co-operation levels in groups.
“I think it does speak to the mechanisms that keep people behaving honestly and generously in many settings and, where behaviour is entirely anonymous, helps explain when they don't.” - Daily Mail