The benefits of gossip

Posted on January 18, 2012 by in Psychology

Spreading rumors – always a bad thing? Researchers of the University of California, Berkeley, investigated the existence  and dynamics of prosocial gossip and found evidence that it “plays a critical role in the maintenance of social order” and can even be therapeutic.

According to the researchers, prosocial gossip has the function of warning others about untrustworthy or dishonest people, and must not be confused with chitchat about celebrities. To test the positive outcomes of prosocial gossip participants were asked to observe a game – while connected to heart rate monitors – in which one of the players was gaining money while cheating. After noticing the cheating behavior the heart rates of the participants started to rise. In response, most of them tried to warn a new player by passing a “gossip note”. Successfull spreading the information about the cheater tempered the increase in their heart rates.

Overall, the findings indicate that gossip can have social and psychologic benefits: helping us detect bad behavior, saving others from exploitation and by lowering stress. “When we observe someone behave in an immoral way, we get frustrated,” said Rob Willer, coauthor of the study. “But being able to communicate this information to others who could be helped makes us feel better.”

Source: Feinberg, M., Willer, R., Stellar, J., & Keltner, D. 2012. The virtues of gossip: reputational information sharing as prosocial behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102: 1015-1030.