For centuries, gossip has been dismissed as salacious, idle chatter that can damage reputations and erode trust. But a new study from the University of California, Berkeley, suggests rumor-mongering can have positive outcomes such as helping us 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 published in this month's online issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
The study also found that gossip can be therapeutic. Volunteers' heart rates increased when they witnessed someone behaving badly, but this increase was tempered when they were able to pass on the information to alert others.
"Spreading information about the person whom they had seen behave badly tended to make people feel better, quieting the frustration that drove their gossip," Willer said.
So strong is the urge to warn others about unsavory characters that participants in the UC Berkeley study sacrificed money to send a "gossip note" to warn those about to play against cheaters in economic trust games. Overall, the findings indicate that people need not feel bad about revealing the vices of others, especially if it helps save someone from exploitation, the researchers said.
"We shouldn't feel guilty for gossiping if the gossip helps prevent others from being taken advantage of," said Matthew Feinberg, a UC Berkeley social psychologist and lead author of the paper.
The study focused on "prosocial" gossip that "has the function of warning others about untrustworthy or dishonest people," said Willer, as opposed to the voyeuristic rumor-mongering about the ups and downs of such tabloid celebrities as Kim Kardashian and Charlie Sheen.
In a series of four experiments, researchers used games in which the players' gene
|Contact: Yasmin Anwar|
University of California - Berkeley