It turns out there can be benefits to gossiping.
In recent years, there has been plenty of research on the positive effects that gossip can bring to indivduals. Rather than just a means to spread rumours and humiliate others, gossip has been widely considered by scientists as a way to learn about cultural norms, bond with others, form trust, and even, as one recent study found, allow individuals to gauge their own success and social standing.
Researchers at Dartmouth College in the US are the latest group to have found that despite its negative reputation, gossip can actually be a good thing for people to spread.
“Gossip is a complex form of communication that is often misunderstood,” says post-doctoral researcher Eshin Jolly. “It can be a means of social and substantive connection beyond its typical negative connotation.”
Jolly and assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences Luke Chang set out to understand what societal function gossip serves. They created an online game to study how gossip develops when information becomes more uncertain over time. Participants were asked to play 10 rounds of the game in six-person groups. With each round, players were given $10 and the choice to keep the money or invest any amount of it in a group fund. That fund would multiply by 1.5 times and then divide the total savings equally among the six players.
As you can imagine, the game created tension between certain players and since the game restricted information, it left some players suspicious of other participants. During some rounds, players were allowed to privately chat with others in their group which allowed players to gossip about how other participants were behaving; identifying who was freeriding and who was actually helping the team. After the contest, players declared how willing they would be to play with each player in their group again.
“Our inspiration was creating a life-like scenario, in which you’re a member of a community and affected by the actions of all other community members, but most of whom you rarely observe and engage with directly,” Jolly explains.
So why do people love to gossip so much?
In games where players had little information about their teammates’ choices, the study found more spontaneous conversations about others started. When players could see what everyone in their group was doing with their money, however, chats moved to a wider variety of generic topics that didn't gauge much of an interesting conversation.
Participants also relied on the second-hand information coming from other players when they couldn’t see what some teammates were doing for themselves. Researchers say this demonstrates how gossip helps people to learn from another person’s experiences and help them form a bond.
“By exchanging information with others, gossip is a way of forming relationships. It involves trust and facilitates a social bond that is reinforced as further communication takes place,” says Chang.
“Gossip can be useful because it helps people learn through the experiences of others while enabling them to become closer to each other in the process,” Jolly adds.
The study appears in the journal Current Biology.