Jan 24, 2012
Our study is really about two things.
First, gossip gets a bad rap. Much of what we call gossip is driven by a sincere desire to help others. We find, in a series of experiments, that the more generous and moral among us are most likely to pass on rumors about untrustworthy people, and they report doing so because they are concerned about the well-being others. In addition, we find that a category of rumor that we call “prosocial gossip” has positive effects for groups. When people pass on information about others who are selfish and untrustworthy, it warns others to avoid these people. As a result, overall rates of exploitation can be controlled in the group.
Taken together, we find that much gossip has both positive effects and moral motivations. So that’s the first thing—the idea that gossip can be quite virtuous.
Second, we found that gossip alleviates the negative emotions that we feel when we find that someone has behaved in an antisocial way. In our experiments, we find that people tend to experience frustration and show an increased heart rate when they find out that someone has behaved in a deviant way. But engaging in gossip, warning another about this person, can temper their frustration and elevated heart rate. So in this way, gossiping can make you feel better; you might even say it’s therapeutic.
Whether people should gossip more in light of this research depends on what kind of gossip it is. Obviously, rumors that are inaccurate, degrading, or maliciously motivated are socially harmful. However, gossip that is based on reliable information that serves to warn people about who can and cannot be trusted is good. It serves to promote cooperation and maintain social order.
Robb Willer is a professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley.