Gossiping can be good for a group and society, Stanford study shows

University study shows a good gossip helps co-operation and deters selfishness

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 February, 2014, 2:56am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 June, 2016, 12:45pm

Go ahead and gossip. It's good for society.

An experiment to study the nature of gossip and ostracism suggests both serve important roles in society: reforming bullies and encouraging cooperation.

"Groups that allow their members to gossip," said Matthew Feinberg, a Stanford University postdoctoral researcher, "sustain cooperation and deter selfishness better than those that don't. And groups do even better if they can gossip and ostracise untrustworthy members. While both of these behaviours can be misused, our findings suggest that they also serve very important functions for groups and society."

The experiment, which was published in Psychological Science, involved 216 participants who were divided into groups and who decided whether to make financial choices that would benefit their group.

Researchers commonly use this public-good exercise to examine social dilemmas because individual participants will benefit the most by selfishly free-riding off everyone else's contributions while contributing nothing themselves.

Before moving on to the next round with an entirely new group, participants could gossip about their prior group members. Future group members then received that information and could decide to exclude -ostracize - a suspect participant from the group before deciding about their next financial choices.

The researchers found that when people learn - through gossip - about the behaviour of others, they use this information to align with those deemed cooperative. Those who have behaved selfishly can then be excluded from group activities, based on the prevailing gossip. This serves the group's greater good, for selfish types are known to exploit more-cooperative people for their own gains.

At the same time, when people know that others may gossip about them - and experience the resulting social exclusion -they tend to learn from the experience and reform their behaviour by cooperating more in future group settings.

The very threat of ostracism frequently deterred selfishness in the group.