Gossip Can Be Good

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We think of gossip as being petty and generally unsavory—and some of it is—but gossiping to warn people of others' bad behavior is good for society and good for your heart, studies show.

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We think of gossip as being petty, rumor-inducing, and generally an unsavory means of communication. This aspect of gossip can certainly be true, but a new study shows that gossip can also have major benefits -- for society and for the individual.

"Gossip gets a bad rap, but we're finding evidence that it plays a critical role in the maintenance of social order," said study author Robb Willer.

Willer and colleagues did a series of experiments to determine what role gossip plays in social interaction. In one phase of the study participants, hooked up to a heart rate monitor, watched other people ("confederates," working for the researchers) play a game in which they had to share dollars or points with another. It became obvious that some players weren't playing fairly and hoarded points. When observing the dishonest players, the participants' heart rates rose.

But when they were able to slip the honest players a "gossip note" to warn them, the observers' heart rates declined. This suggests that observing dishonesty can trigger a stress response, while talking about it can ease it.

In another phase of the experiment, observers had the option of giving up their compensation (payment for being in the experiment) to send a note of warning to the honest players. Even if there was no punishment for the dishonest players, the majority of observers still chose to give up their money to send gossip notes.

"People paid money to gossip even when they couldn't affect the selfish person's outcome," said lead author Matthew Feinberg.

The researchers also found that participants who ranked higher on questionnaires measuring altruism and cooperativeness said they were more disturbed by the cheater's behavior than others -- and more relieved when given the chance to warn honest players.

In a final phase of the experiment, the researchers looked at what might happen when people knew beforehand that they could be nailed with a gossip note if they cheated. Half of a group of participants were told that during a break in the game, they would have the option of warning others about dishonest playing. People in the group that received this warning were much more generous in their playing than the other half, which was likely no coincidence.

Willer sums up his team's findings by saying that "when we observe someone behave in an immoral way, we get frustrated. But being able to communicate this information to others who could be helped makes us feel better."

There's a difference between gossiping for the pure, know-it-all thrill of it and gossiping for the sake of warning people as to others' bad behavior. In the age of gossip magazines and TV shows devoted to it, it's probably best to use gossip for good instead of evil. Not only could some well-placed gossip help society, but it might just help your heart.

Willer and team carried out their study at the University of California Berkeley. It is published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Image: CREATISTA/Shutterstock.


This article originally appeared on TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com, an Atlantic partner site.

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Alice G. Walton, PhD, is a health journalist and an editor at The Doctor Will See You Now.

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