"Did you hear what she did?" "Guess what I just found out about our new co-worker!" These could be the starts of nasty rumours, but a new study suggests the act of gossiping can also serve important purposes in maintaining social order.
Researchers report their findings in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
"Gossip gets a bad rap," said Robb Willer, social psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley. "Much of what we call gossip is driven by a sincere desire to help others."
In a series of studies, Willer and colleagues explored the effect that receiving and relaying gossip has on people. Specifically they looked at rumours that involve another person being untrustworthy.
One study involved 53 participants who were hooked up to heart rate monitors and learned that someone else in the laboratory had behaved in a selfish, exploitative way.
They were told that the untrustworthy person would also interact with others in the room. This information elevated participants' heart rates. But once a participant passed on a note warning others not to trust that person, the participant's heart rate was tempered.
A second study with 111 participants expanded on this idea. The third study, with 45 participants, added the dimension that people had to pay in order to spread gossip.
Another experiment took place online, involving 399 participants engaging in games that involved cooperating with other people. It appeared that participants were more cooperative and less selfish if they believed an observer could gossip about them to other interaction partners in the game. That is, the threat of gossip served a purpose in making people work together.
The in-person studies incorporated small numbers of participants, making them less compelling statistically. All four studies, moreover, had more women than men, raising the question of whether the results are more geared toward women's behaviour.
Future research may focus on how much gossip that people generally spread is good vs. bad, and how gossip differs across cultures globally, Willer said. His team also hasn't looked at pure catty talk - rumours spread about people that would make them feel embarrassed, but don't have anything to do with their moral character.
"The kind where people are just sort of preying on others' weaknesses is probably not so useful, and may even be socially deleterious in that it gives gossip as a whole a bad name," Willer said.
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