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Synopsis: Most people regard gossip with disdain. While backbiting, vicious slander is usually disruptive, researchers have found that informational gossip has benefits for society by keeping people in line with societal norms. Experts discuss.

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  • Dr. Robb Willer, Prof. of Sociology, Stanford Univ
  • Dr. Matthew Feinberg, Asst. Prof. of Management, Univ. of Toronto

Link for more information:

16-37 Gossip

Nancy Benson: Next time someone asks you, “Have you heard…?” You might think twice before you shut down that conversation. Gossip often gets a bad rap in our culture. But not all gossip is created equal, and research shows some forms of gossip can actually be good for society.

Willer: We would be better off if people couldn’t gossip. Then nobody could slander you when you weren’t around. You wouldn’t hear rumors and possibly malicious lies about people that they don’t really have a chance to correct. And certainly that’s the case. A world without gossip would certainly be a better world. But it’s a real mistake to go from that to saying that we would be better off without any kind of gossip.

Benson: That’s Robb Willer, sociology professor at Stanford University. He studies the effects of gossip on society.

Willer: A lot of people have a pretty narrow view of gossip as just malicious negative information said about people behind their backs. There are a lot of things that distort gossip out in the world. But we do find that nonetheless gossip can play a really important role in promoting cooperation and trustworthiness in groups both by making people acceptable and also by helping people know who to interact with.

Benson: Scientists refer to beneficial information sharing as “pro-social gossip.” Matthew Feinberg, formerly a postdoctoral fellow in Willer’s lab and now assistant professor of management at the University of Toronto, says that’s the kind of storytelling that helps keep people in line.

Feinberg: People who would likely be transgressors and be unfair are more likely to restrain their behavior and choose not to be so selfish because they know that they could get gossiped about and that it could result in them getting punished or ostracized from the group.

Benson: So how exactly did they figure out when gossip can be good? They conducted a research study, calling people into the lab to play a computer game where Feinberg says they had a choice to make: they could act selfishly for their own benefit or they could sacrifice for the common good.

Feinberg: And in one of the conditions we give them the opportunity to play it, and then after each round they’re able to gossip through the computer through an electronic note to the future interaction partners of one of the people they just interacted with.

Benson: After future participants received information about selfish players, they often chose not to play with them. Being cut out led the selfish players to shape up and start cooperating. So that’s one way Willer says gossip deters people from selfish behavior.

Willer: There’s even another way that gossip and threat of ostracism can change your behavior or can help encourage cooperation, which is that it can help you know who are the more cooperative people that you can trust more. It’s not just getting the people out of the group, it’s not just deterring bad behavior; it also helps you select who would be the most cooperative people that you would interact with. And in this way gossip can really help all of us get some information on the people we can rely on without having to have personal experiences with them, necessarily.

Benson: But while we can certainly do without malicious gossip, Feinberg and WIller say that a world without pro-social gossip would be a bad thing because you wouldn’t as easily know who you can trust.

Feinberg: A good example is, say you’re single and you’re thinking about dating somebody that you’ve been set up with. Now, what’s the first thing that most people do? They try to find out as much information about that person prior to meeting them as possible, prior to even saying, yeah, I’ll go on a date with that person. And if you didn’t have that ability to screen all that information from others then you would be entering all these different situations very blindly and would have to trust people at face value. Whereas with gossip we can trust people based primarily on what we know about them from other peoples experiences.

Benson: At least in this study, people tended to take gossip at face value. Then again, in this context, there wasn’t much reason to be suspicious – it was a game, so there was no incentive for people to spread false information. In the real world, Willer says things are a bit different.

Willer: We know that out in the world it’s much more complicated than that and people do pass on negative malicious gossip, not just because it’s true, but also because they may have ulterior motivations, they may not like someone and that might distort their view of the person’s past behaviors or their interpretation of the person’s past behaviors. People may do malicious gossip on purpose, and people may do it because they are just biased in their perception of someone, or have themselves received unreliable information.

Benson: The Stanford findings support the notion that people are more likely to behave well if they know they’ll be held accountable. Which may explain why some of the worst kinds of gossip can be found on the Internet, where Willer says people are protected by anonymity.

Willer: Any setting that promises you anonymity is a fertile breeding ground for vindictive and malicious gossip. I do think that’s part of why a lot of people look at our research and are suspicious of it at first. They say, well, seems like most of the gossip that I consume everyday or that I’m exposed to on the Internet or in everyday life, it doesn’t seem so reliable, it doesn’t seem like it’s really helping society. And they’re probably right, that the gossip they’re thinking of doesn’t. But there’s a lot of other gossip that you maybe don’t even see as gossip per se. It’s just you talking to your friends about other people that you know and finding out who can you trust and who can you not and how moral and reliable are the people in your groups and  in your community. I think we would all agree that that’s pretty useful information to the extent that we can get it accurately.

Benson: Anonymous websites are one thing, but what about reviews on websites, like Angie’s list or Yelp? Is that gossip? According to the broad definition used by social scientists, that’s exactly what it is. Those sites, Feinberg says, are another great example of gossip done well.

Feinberg: The Internet in this case has provided us with an opportunity to gossip about these organizations that we’re spreading representational information both positive and negative. I think the most important for many people is the negative, because any time you plan to use the services of one of these organizations, you might go on to Yelp or one of these websites and check and see what are the terrible things or potentially terrible things they’ve done to other people. And if you see enough of this you might say, well, I’m not going to use that organization. I’m essentially ostracizing them from the network of organizations I might patronize.

Benson: This gave them the idea for another research study, which reveals that websites like Yelp not only give customers a lot of information, they also deter businesses from ripping people off.

Willer: We ran a field experiment where we had people call up auto repair stores and ask for estimates on a transmission repair. And what we found was that people who called auto repair shops and said at the beginning of the call that they were an avid Yelp user, they tended to be quoted better estimates for that transmission repair, suggesting that these companies were savvy, they knew that offering the person a good deal could get them good reviews and get them better business. This shows a subtle and obvious way in which reputation systems like Yelp help us as customers.

Benson: But if gossip has so many benefits, why do we as a society tend to look down on it? Feinberg says people tend to accentuate the negative forms of gossip without realizing that without gossip, there’s no accountability.

Willer: A world where we know that no one can pass on information about us would liberate us to not necessarily behave our best. We would be that much less restricted from behaving in an egoistic way. In an egoistic way.

Benson: So while everyone knows that a person who gossips to you will also likely gossip about you, now we know that sometimes… It might not be such a bad thing.

Our writer producer this week is Christine Herman.

Our production director is Sean Waldron.

I’m Nancy Benson.

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