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Ig Nobel prize for research on gossip

16 September 2022
A team of scientists, including several from Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, have won the Ig Nobel Prize. They receive this prize, intended for research that makes you laugh as well as think, for their research on gossiping. On behalf of VU Amsterdam, social psychologist Paul van Lange and organisation scientists Bianca Beersma, Terence Dores Cruz and Annika Nieper are involved in this research.

Gossip. It’s something that we humans do so often, so naturally, that we don’t even think of it as anything special. Approximately two-thirds of people’s conversations are devoted to social topics, much of which takes the form of gossip – sharing information about an absent, third person. And gossip can have an enormous impact on people’s lives, both by boosting people’s reputations and by tearing them down. 

Despite its ubiquity, gossip has received relatively little attention from scientists. In a new article published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B:  Biological Sciences, an international group of scientists has used mathematical modeling to better understand when gossip can be expected to be honest or dishonest.

For their work, this team of scientists has been awarded the Ig Nobel prize, an award that “honours achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think.” The prizes have been awarded since 1991, shortly before the announcement of the actual Nobel prizes.

In the theoretical work, the researchers show that the interdependence of individuals in a gossip triad — the gossiper, the recipient of gossip, and the target of the gossip — should affect the extent to which gossip is honest or dishonest. For example, people should be more dishonest when gossiping about the uncooperative behaviour of people with whom they have long-term cooperative relationships or are strongly biologically related, and should be more honest when gossiping about the uncooperative behaviour of people with whom they are not highly-interdependent.

Broader meaning

What is the broader meaning of gossip? According to the lead author Junhui Wu, a scientist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing: “We know from previous research that gossip may often serve as a system that promotes rather than undermines cooperation and discourages norm-violation behaviours.  So, we believe it is important to address when people gossip in an honest versus dishonest manner. Dishonest gossip can actually undermine cooperation”.  Biologist and co-author Szabolcs Számado from the Budapest University of Technology and Economics adds: “Not all signals that humans or other animals send are honest. For example, we know from animal research that various signals are deceptive. These signals increase survival value of the self and offspring by misleading predators.”

Benefit for society

Clearly, gossip is an important activity. But what broader relevance does this research have for contemporary society? Paul Van Lange and Terence Dores Cruz, both working at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, note that “people seem quite thoughtful about when they gossip and with whom. We know from earlier research that gossip often occurs in face-to-face situations, with only one other person who is often considered trustworthy. Such are situations are relatively safe for the gossiper and the recipient of gossip. Most people recognize that gossip often happens, and, when visible to others, that realization may help to promote cooperative behaviour, this research also shows.”

Team spirit

All members of the author team for Ig Nobel article agree that the harmful and potentially dishonest nature of gossip require further study. “Our research indicates that the positive functions of gossip are certainly true for honest gossip, but the problem of dishonesty and the conditions in which it occurs requires further study. It’s unavoidable that people will be sometimes tempted to be dishonest in their communication about absent others.” At VU Amsterdam, Bianca Beersma, Terence Dores Cruz, Annika Nieper, Martina Testori and Elena Martinescu are conducting additional research to understand when and why gossip will be honest or dishonest, and how recipients react to different types of gossip. For example in the Force of Gossip group at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (https://vu.nl/en/about-vu/research-institutes/force-of-gossip)

The research paper was inspired by an interdisciplinary meeting on “The language of cooperation: reputation and honest signaling” held at the Lorentz center in Leiden, the Netherlands.

The ceremony can be viewed via this link.