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Good gossip: We spread rumors to protect others

Feb. 9, 2012 at 6:45 PM ET

By Wynne Parry

LiveScience

 

Spreading the word after you see someone behave badly can make you feel better and it can benefit society, suggests a new study that explores our impulse to gossip and how it can nip selfishness in the bud.

"Gossip can be bad, but we tend to overlook that it can be good as well, and a lot of gossip is driven by concern for others and has positive social effects," said Robb Willer, a study researcher and an assistant professor of sociology and psychology at the University of California, Berkeley.

The research joins accumulating evidence of the social benefits of gossip.

The variety of gossip Willer and colleagues studied — in which people spread negative information about someone else's untrustworthy behavior as a warning — may help maintain social order, Willer told LiveScience.

In a series of four experiments, Willer and colleagues used variations on the trust game. It relies on a scenario in which one person gives money or some other resource to a second person. The resources are then artificially increased and the second person can decide how much, if any, to return to the first person.

Three of the experiments were set up so the researchers could observe how the participants reacted when they saw a player behaving badly. The participants observed trust games in which a player refused to return anything (money or points redeemable for money), and the participants were given the option of warning others about the selfish player.

In the fourth experiment, rather than observing, the study participants played the role of the person who received the resources, in this case raffle tickets, and had to decide how many, if any, to return.

The researchers found that when people observed others behaving selfishly, their heart rates increased. Most took the opportunity to warn a new player that their future contender was being greedy, and doing so tempered their increasing heart rates. 

The second experiment showed that certain people — those who were more altruistic — reacted more strongly when they saw someone behaving selfishly and were more likely to gossip about it.

In the third study, participants were willing to pay out of their study earnings to send a note warning others of the selfish player. Many did so, even though the experiment was set up so that their sacrifice would not hurt the selfish player. And in the final study, under the threat of gossip, nearly all players acted more generously, particularly those who had scored low on measures of altruism.

The study was published Jan. 9 in the journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

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