Gossip is basically only thing holding society together, says science

Gossip is generally seen as malicious, something that destroys relationships and reputations alike with a deadly mix of garbled half-truths and outright lies. But did you ever stop to consider all the good that gossip does?

That's the idea explored by a team of psychologists at UC Berkeley, who argue that gossip helps keep bad behavior in check, provides a way to protect others from those who would exploit them, and generally allow people to blow off some steam and lower their stress levels. It's all part of a wide-ranging study that explored just how people responded when presented with situations tailor-made for gossiping.

For instance, one study found that people's heart rates went up when they witnessed another person do something wrong, and their heart rate went back down again when given the chance to pass along reports of the person's bad behavior to others. Social psychologist Robb Willer explains in a statement:

"Gossip gets a bad rap, but we're finding evidence that it plays a critical role in the maintenance of social order. Spreading information about the person whom they had seen behave badly tended to make people feel better, quieting the frustration that drove their gossip.

The focus of the study was on what the researchers call "prosocial gossip", in which people pass on information about those misbehaving as a warning to others. The researchers found that many participants were actually willing to sacrifice money for the ability to pass along "gossip notes" that warned the next set of participants that people were cheating. UC Berkeley's Yasmin Anwar describes one of the experimental setups:

In a series of four experiments, researchers used games in which the players' generosity toward each other was measured by how many dollars or points they shared. In the first experiment, 51 volunteers were hooked up to heart rate monitors as they observed the scores of two people playing the game. After a couple of rounds, the observers could see that one player was not playing by the rules and was hoarding all the points. Observers' heart rates increased as they witnessed the cheating, and most seized the opportunity to slip a "gossip note" to warn a new player that his or her contender was unlikely to play fair. The experience of passing on the information calmed this rise in heart rate.

In a subsequent experiment, the participants were actually willing to sacrifice the money they were paid to participate in the study just to pass a gossip note informing on a cheater, even though they were told this gossip wouldn't actually have any effect on the cheater. The instinct to gossip seemed rooted in some surprisingly good-hearted concerns about helping others out, something the researchers were able to cross-reference with questionnaires the participants filled out on their altruism. Those who scored high on this personality test were also the most likely to pass along gossip on a cheater.

One last study also showed how gossip might improve social order. 300 participants were enlisted for an online version of the economic trust game, and they were given raffle tickets that they could then decided how best to share. After each round, a few of the participants were allowed to observed each other's scores and pass along gossip notes on those they felt weren't sharing fairly. The other participants were aware of this, and the researchers found that the threat of being the subject of negative gossip generally spurred people to be significantly more generous, particularly those who had not scored highly on the initial altruism questionnaire.

It's an interesting study, and a potentially enlightening demonstration of how our supposed baser instincts can actually serve positive social functions. That said, there's a little room for skepticism here on how broadly this should be applied - it would be interesting to see a study that could also incorporate more destructive forms of gossip, such as participants being able to falsely accuse others of cheating.

I would also like to see how this holds up outside a laboratory setting, where people might be more inclined to behave well on the assumption that, well, scientists are watching. Although if I'm suggesting that the participants would behave better for fear of scientists gossip about them, I may have just sorta proven their point...

Via UC Berkeley. Image by Michal Kowalski, via Shutterstock.