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Gossip in everyday life is essential for cooperation

4 November 2021
Gossip: we think it's a bad thing to do, but still we all engage in it. This raises the question: why do we gossip? A team of eleven researchers from the Faculty of Social Sciences and the Faculty of Behavioural and Movement Science at VU Amsterdam investigated this. They conclude that gossip allows people to determine whether they want to cooperate with someone. We also believe most of the gossip that we hear.

Gossip is an undeniable part of our social lives. Gossip allows people to share information about the reputation of another person. The receivers of gossip can use that information to determine how they will behave towards that person. Specifically, whether they want to cooperate with that person. But is that really why we gossip?

To find out, a team of eleven researchers from the Social Psychology section and the Organization Sciences department, led by Terence Dores Cruz, Daniel Balliet, Bianca Beersma, and Paul van Lange, investigated the psychology of gossip and reputation in everyday life in a sample of 309 Dutch participants (average age 40, ages between 18 and 75). For ten days after an information session in the psychology lab, participants answered a questionnaire about gossip on their smartphones four times a day. This resulted in more than 5,000 accounts of gossip from the participants' daily lives.

Norm violations
The results show that gossipers like to share both positive and negative gossip about character traits relevant to cooperation, including trustworthiness. Gossip described others as particularly negative on these traits when it concerned norm violations; situations in which someone does not follow the norms of a group. In other words: if someone does not follow the norms of a group, that person is more likely to be gossiped about negatively. 

People also see the risks of gossiping. For example, negative gossip is mainly shared with people with whom gossipers have a bond of trust. This minimizes the risk that the person that was talked about will find out about the information and retaliate. 

Believable
It was also found that people see the gossip they receive as very believable. People use gossip to form their opinion about a person. For example, if a gossip describes an acquaintance as trustworthy, then this person's reputation improves in the eyes of the receiver of the gossip. Moreover, this reputation formation explained how people behave, they helped people with a good reputation and avoided people with a bad reputation.

According to Terence Dores Cruz, "The findings support the theory that gossip is ultimately used to determine, based on reputation, who we want to cooperate with, and who we would rather keep at a distance. This does not always have to be done consciously, but it shows why we are so eager to engage in gossip."