Though traditionally seen as a way to spread nasty rumors and scandalous information, gossip may gain a better reputation after the release of a new study by a team of UC Berkeley researchers that suggests some forms of gossip can actually be positive.
The study — which was published online in the January edition of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology — finds that spreading information about someone’s reputation or “gossiping” about antisocial behavior can actually lower stress in those who observe it and help prevent bad behavior in the future.
“Much of what we call gossip is driven by a sincere desire to help others,” said Robb Willer, UC Berkeley associate professor of psychology and sociology and co-author of the study, in an email. “(It) may be a critical way in which people maintain social order. Spreading rumors about people who have behaved badly allows our friends and acquaintances to know who to trust and who to avoid.”
Willer, campus psychology graduate student Matthew Feinberg, social psychology graduate student Jennifer Stellar and psychology professor Dacher Keltner reached their conclusions after staging a series of experiments over three years in Barrows and Tolman Halls.
According to the “Virtues of Gossip” study, volunteers in the researchers’ experiments who tried to prevent untrustworthy actions through “prosocial behavior” were most likely to gossip, despite economic consequences in the context of the study.
The team also discovered that gossip lowered the elevated heart rate that some volunteers experienced after observing unfair actions in the experiments and lessened the frustration caused by the situation.
“You might even say it’s therapeutic,” Willer added in the email.
Over the course of four experiments, the researchers gradually increased the number of participants faced with the task of deciding whether to report the behavior of others within a trust game.
The first experiment tested the reactions of 52 volunteers observing a trust game between two players, where it became clear after time that one player was playing unfairly at the expense of the other.
When the observers were given the chance to pass the affected player a “gossip note,” almost all observers — 26 out of 27 — chose to advise the affected player against the untrustworthy player, the study states.
“Individuals’ underlying prosociality, their regard for the well-being of others, drives them to share information of value to vulnerable others,” the study states.
The second study operated with the same structure, involving 111 volunteers who reported feeling less frustrated after gossiping.
Even when the researchers introduced an economic cost for gossiping and informed participants that gossiping would not change the outcome of the experiment, volunteers continued to gossip about untrustworthy players in the third study.
The final study used 399 participants in an online version of the trust game and found that volunteers faced with the possibility of being gossiped about acted more prosocially.
“With reputational concerns almost always present, group members were forced to keep selfish motives in check or risk ostracism,” the study states.
Willer said the research team may continue to study the workings of gossip in the future in different cultures and countries, but no studies are currently under way.
Franklin Krbechek covers research and ideas.