Gossip has a bad reputation. Since middle school, most of us associate talking about and shaming others with being judgmental and vindictive. But gossip, according to new research, also has another function beyond titillation and nasty politicking. Gossip, according to this new study, is our built-in social policeman, restraining our worst impulses and pushing us toward cooperation and decency.
Not sure you buy that conclusion? Here’s how the research worked. The team out of Stanford University asked 216 participants to play a standard game often used in research that asks group members to make financial decisions. Profits are maximized if everyone collaborates, but the setup makes it tempting for each individual to freeload and contribute nothing. In this particular study, participants were allowed to gossip about who played nice and who played dirty between rounds of the game.
As the study subjects played the game, the researchers found that gossip allowed the participants to identify and ostracize selfish actors, pushing the whole group toward being more cooperative. It also let those who were inclined to be helpful but who feared being exploited have a freer hand to act honorably.
"Groups that allow their members to gossip sustain cooperation and deter selfishness better than those that don't. And groups do even better if they can gossip and ostracize untrustworthy members," reported Matthew Feinberg, a study co-author. "While both of these behaviors can be misused, our findings suggest that they also serve very important functions for groups and society."
"Despite negative connotations, the pairing of the capacity to gossip and to ostracize undesirable individuals from groups has a strong positive effect on cooperation levels in groups," agreed Robb Willer, a sociology professor and another study co-author.
What does this mean for business owners in particular? Willer suggests that, assuming you’re using it to discuss genuinely bad behavior, you should feel OK about the occasional behind-the-back chat. "Imagine a workplace where an employee's performance could only be seen by individuals in the immediate setting, and those individuals could not pass on what they had seen to other co-workers or supervisors. Further, imagine a work setting where managers could not fire delinquent employees,” he said. “It would be hard to deter workers from cutting corners ethically or freeloading, working only when they were directly supervised."
So, go ahead, tell the others about your co-worker who is always killing the milk in the office fridge or slacking off on premeeting prep. The latest research says you’re doing the group a favor.
What do you make of these research findings?