Gossip may actually be good for you!

Last Updated: Jan 18, 2012, 18:26 PM IST

Washington: Contrary to what most people believe, gossip is not all that bad as it helps us keep a check on bad behaviour, protect against exploitation and lower stress, a new study has suggested.

UC Berkeley social psychologist Robb Willer, a coauthor of the study, asserted that although gossip gets a "bad rap" but there are evidences, which indicate that it plays a critical role in the maintenance of “social order”.

Willer said that study focused on “prosocial” gossip that “has the function of warning others about untrustworthy or dishonest people”.

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.

“Spreading information about the person whom they had seen behave badly tended to make people feel better, quieting the frustration that drove their gossip,” Willer said.

In the second experiment, 111 participants filled out questionnaires about their level of altruism and cooperativeness. They then observed monitors showing the scores from three rounds of the economic trust game, and saw that one player was cheating.

The more prosocial observers reported feeling frustrated by the betrayal and then relieved to be given a chance to pass a gossip note to the next player to prevent exploitation.

“A central reason for engaging in gossip was to help others out – more so than just to talk trash about the selfish individual,” said Matthew Feinberg, a UC Berkeley social psychologist and lead author of the paper.

“Also, the higher participants scored on being altruistic, the more likely they were to experience negative emotions after witnessing the selfish behavior and the more likely they were to engage in the gossip.”

To raise the stakes, participants in the third experiment were asked to go so far as to sacrifice the pay they received to be in the study if they wanted to send a gossip note.

Moreover, their sacrifice would not negatively impact the selfish player’s score. Still, a large majority of observers agreed to take the financial hit just to send the gossip note.

“People paid money to gossip even when they couldn’t affect the selfish person’s outcome,” Feinberg said.

In the final study, 300 participants from around the country were recruited via Craigslist to play several rounds of the economic trust game online. They played using raffle tickets that would be entered in a drawing for a 50 dollars cash prize - an extra incentive to hold on to as many raffle tickets as possible.

Some players were told that the observers during a break could pass a gossip note to players in the next round to alert them to individuals not playing fairly.

The threat of being the subject of negative gossip spurred virtually all the players to act more generously, especially those who had scored low on an altruism questionnaire taken prior to the game.

According to Willer, together, the results from all four experiments showed 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,” Willer added.

The study has been published in the online issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

ANI