HANOVER, N.H. — In case you didn’t hear, researchers at Dartmouth College have a secret to share with you. Despite its negative reputation, a new study finds gossip can actually be a good thing for people to spread. Study authors say gossip isn’t just about passing on rumors and saying bad things about others. In fact, their report reveals it also serves to create social connections and even helps people learn new things about the world they haven’t experienced for themselves.
“Gossip is a complex form of communication that is often misunderstood,” says post-doctoral researcher Eshin Jolly in a media release. “It can be a means of social and substantive connection beyond its typical negative connotation.”
While many people associate gossip with trading negative secrets, researchers add it can also include small talk in-person or online, like having a private Zoom chat. Previous studies find about 14 percent of people’s daily conservations classify as gossip — most of it being neutral in tone.
Testing the human compulsion to talk about other people
From social media to the classic office water cooler, it seems as if people simply can’t stop exchanging information about themselves and others. Jolly and assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences Luke Chang set out to understand what societal function gossip serves.
The team created an online game to study how gossip develops when information becomes more uncertain over time. Participants played 10 rounds of the game in six-person groups. Each round, players received $10 and could choose to keep the money or invest any amount of it in a group fund. That fund would multiply by 1.5 times and then divide the total savings equally among the six players.
Researchers say the game inherently creates tension between selfish (freeriding) and cooperative players. Such tests are what scientists call a public goods game. In some instances, the game restricted information so players could only observe the behavior of a couple of their teammates. During some games, players could privately chat with someone else in their group. This allowed players to gossip about how other participants were behaving; identifying who was freeriding and who was helping the team. After the contest, players declared how willing they would be to play with each player in their group again.
“Our inspiration was creating a life-like scenario, in which you’re a member of a community and affected by the actions of all other community members, but most of whom you rarely observe and engage with directly,” Jolly explains.
So why do people love to gossip so much?
Study authors say their results show gossip is a “rich, multifaceted communication” with many functions within social groups. During the games, different kinds of gossip broke out depending on the amount of information available to players.
In games where players had little information about their teammates’ choices, the study finds more spontaneous conversations about others started. When players could see what everyone in their group was doing with their money however, chats moved to a wider variety of neutral topics.
Participants also relied on the second-hand information coming from other players when they couldn’t see what some teammates were doing for themselves. Researchers say this demonstrates how gossip helps people to learn from another person’s experiences. Study authors add players who could chat with each other felt more connected after the game.
“By exchanging information with others, gossip is a way of forming relationships. It involves trust and facilitates a social bond that is reinforced as further communication takes place,” says Chang.
“Gossip can be useful because it helps people learn through the experiences of others, while enabling them to become closer to each other in the process,” Jolly adds.
Bonding over good gossip
In a typical public goods game, researchers say players usually contribute less over time, eventually unraveling the network of people. In the new study however, there was less decline in cooperation when players could privately chat with each other. Overall, communication increased collective cooperation.
Study authors find “baseless trash talk” is not the sole purpose of gossip. It can also create a “shared reality” where friends and colleagues build social bonds, exchange information, and reach agreements on socially acceptable behavior.
The study appears in the journal Current Biology.