18 January 2012
Why gossip is good for you
by Will Parker
Gossip has traditionally had a bad reputation, but a convoluted series of experiments carried out in the US have demonstrated the mental physiological benefits of gossiping.
The study focused on "prosocial" gossip that warns others about untrustworthy or dishonest people, as opposed to the voyeuristic rumor-mongering about the ups and downs of tabloid celebrities. Gossip helps us police bad behavior, prevent exploitation and also lowers stress, say the University of California, Berkeley researchers who penned the new study. "Spreading information about the person whom they had seen behave badly tended to make people feel better, quieting the frustration that drove their gossip," researcher Robb Willer explained in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
In the experiments, the 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. "Passing on the gossip note ameliorated their negative feelings and tempered their frustration," Willer said. "Gossiping made them feel better."
In a 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," co-researcher Matthew Feinberg said. "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 a 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. Even so, 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 noted.
Together, the results from the experiments show that "when we observe someone behave in an immoral way, we get frustrated," Willer said. "But being able to communicate this information to others who could be helped makes us feel better."
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