Is gossip getting an unwarranted bad rap?
Researchers at University of California, Berkeley, seem to think so in a new study that finds rumor-mongering has some positive outcomes.
The provocative new study, published the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, argues that gossip can provide significant social and psychological benefits to society – such as helping police bad behavior, prevent exploitation and lower stress.
"Gossip gets a bad rap, but we're finding evidence that it plays a critical role in the maintenance of social order," said UC Berkeley social psychologist Robb Willer, a coauthor of the study.
To reach their conclusions, researchers conducted a series of four experiments, using games in which the players' generosity toward each other was measured by how many dollars or points they shared. In one test, volunteers were hooked up to heart rate monitors as they observed two people playing the game – including one cheater.
Observers' heart rates increased as they watched the cheating, and most seized the opportunity to slip a "gossip note" to warn the other player. Passing on the information calmed this rise in heart rate.
The other experiments similarly gauged participants’ reactions to cheaters – and their physical responses when they told someone about it.
Taken together, the four experiments showed 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."