The Benefits of Gossip

You say gossip, a psychologist says “reputational information sharing”. Either way, we’re talking about talking about each other—who works hard, who’s a slacker, who’s trustworthy, who’s having an affair, who’s bringing doughnuts to work, and who’s stealing from the break room fridge. That’s all gossip, and, according to a new study, it may serve an actual useful purpose beyond entertaining jerks.

According to a new study published in Psychological Science, groups that allow gossip and ostracism do better at cooperative tasks than group who do not. For the study, researchers divided 216 participants into groups who then played a public-goods game common in psychological experiments (like this one, which explains why we like punishing tax dodgers but also like dodging taxes). Basically, members of the group are given the opportunity to contribute money towards a central fund. Members can contribute anything from zero to a maximum fixed amount. The central fund is then multiplied and then paid out to all members of the group. The best thing for the group is if everyone contributes the maximum; then the group gets a maximum pay out. However, the best thing for an individual is to contribute nothing but then enjoy the fruits of everyone else’s labour. There’s the dilemma.

When participants split up and formed new groups, the researchers allowed some groups to gossip, and then vote to ostracize people identified by gossip as selfish. In those groups, average profits went up, because selfish people were weeded out. However, it wasn’t all bad for those thus ostracized; researchers noted that these people tended to reform their ways. According to researchers, “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.”

Of course, this doesn’t negate all the terrible things about gossip—but it does explain why we do it. It also explains why everyone in Human Resources just can’t wait to share some inappropriate workplace topics with the rest of us. They’re just doing their job, apparently.

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