“If society could have its own mind, its goal would be to prevent people from misbehaving,” says Matthew Feinberg, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at the University of Toronto, who has studied how gossip can promote cooperation in groups.
In a couple of studies in which participants played trust-based investment games, Feinberg and his fellow researchers noticed that when someone did something selfish in a game, people were very motivated to rat them out to other participants, even at personal cost to themselves. The unfairness of it all got them all riled up—they felt annoyed and frustrated, and had elevated heart rates. But when they were allowed to gossip, by passing a note saying the cheater was not to be trusted, they calmed down, suggesting that gossiping can be physiologically relieving.
In one of Feinberg’s studies, participants were allowed to exclude non-cooperators. After being ostracized for a round of the game, people were more likely to behave themselves in subsequent rounds. In fact, in both studies, people tended to cooperate more when they knew their behavior might be gossiped about, so even the threat of gossip was enough to get people to toe the line. Again, knowledge that can be used for good or evil.
“There’s a big question in many fields of social science, which is why people cooperate when it’s in their self-interest not to,” Feinberg says. “Even if we’re interacting with somebody we’ll never see again, we live in a very gossipy society, so everything we do, in a sense, is public knowledge.”
This has benefits at the group level, by motivating people to act in everyone’s best interests, not just their own. But a study published in late October in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin posits that individuals see benefits from gossip as well. Not just because a well-timed tidbit could prevent you from being exploited (by dating someone who’s a known cheater, for example), but because learning information about others helps you evaluate yourself.
“Hearing gossip communicates norms of the group,” lead study author Elena Martinescu told me in an email, “but individuals who receive this information will use it to reflect on themselves: Do they personally respect the norm? What can they expect if they break it?”
Humans, self-esteem monsters that we are, like to have a positive self-concept, research says. And while the old axiom that people put others down to make themselves feel better isn’t wrong, the dynamics of gossip and self-evaluation are a little more complex. The new study, out of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, found that both positive and negative gossip about others’ achievements helped people evaluate their own success and social status.
Positive gossip, about people doing something well, had “self-improvement value” for participants, as an example of how they themselves could do better. Negative gossip did indeed make people feel better about themselves, but it also made them more fearful that they might be gossiped about, too. After all, hearing negative gossip meant they were in an environment where people gossip negatively about each other. They could be next.
Nobody likes to live in fear of what people might be saying behind their backs, hence gossip’s understandably bad reputation. And yet people spend most of their conversational capital talking about other people, not just because it’s fun, but because it’s useful. “We happily say something like ‘I don’t want to gossip, but …’” Feinberg says. “The desire and motivation to gossip likely came about for important reasons, even if we look down on it.”