Gossip is good? The surprising social benefits revealed

COLLEGE PARK, Md. — Many people have encountered certain individuals who just can’t seem to keep a secret. Gossip is usually a dirty word among most social groups, as no one wants their dirty laundry out there for all to hear. Interestingly, however, researchers from the University of Maryland and University of Stanford believe the resident blabbermouth may not be worthy of shunning after all. In fact, researchers argue that gossip may even benefit social circles.

Defined as “the exchange of personal information about absent third parties,” researchers say gossip is capable of providing a “social benefit.” More specifically, the study found gossip is helpful in terms of disseminating information about people’s reputations, which can then help the reci­pients of these tips connect with more cooperative individuals while avoiding selfish people.

“When people are interested in knowing if someone is a good person to interact with, if they can get information from gossiping—assuming the information is honest—that can be a very useful thing to have,” says study co-author Dana Nau, a retired professor in UMD’s Department of Computer Science and Institute for Systems Research, in a media release.

These findings come from a computer simulation intended to help solve a long-standing mystery in social psychology: How did gossiping evolve into such a ubiquitous, popular pastime transcending gender, age, culture, and socioeconomic background?

“One previous study shows that, on average, a person spends an hour per day talking about others, so this takes a lot of time out of our daily life,” explains the study’s first author Xinyue Pan (M.S. ’21, Ph.D. ’23, psychology), who published part of this research in her master’s thesis. “That’s why it’s important to study it.”

Man telling a woman a secret
Researchers argue that gossip may actually benefit social circles. (© DDRockstar – stock.adobe.com)

Prior studies indicate gossip is capable of bonding large groups of people together and fostering cooperation, yet it has remained unclear what the actual gossipers gain from these interactions.

“This has been a real puzzle,” adds study co-author Michele Gelfand, a professor at Stanford Business School and a professor emeritus in UMD’s Department of Psychology. “It’s unclear why gossiping, which requires considerable time and energy, evolved as an adaptive strategy at all.”

Moreover, why precisely the recipients of gossip are usually so willing to lend a sympathetic ear to gossipers or behave differently in their presence remains a mystery.

So, in an effort to address these gossip mysteries, researchers utilized an evolutionary game theory model mimicking human decision-making. By virtue of combining tenets of evolutionary biology and game theory, the research team was able to view how their “agents,” or virtual study subjects, interacted with each other and altered their strategies to receive rewards.

Study authors hoped to gain valuable insights regarding whether agents would use gossip to protect themselves or exploit others. During the study, agents could either cooperate with gossipers or defect and even become gossipers themselves. Agents were free to change their strategies after observing the consequences or rewards of other agents’ decisions.  At the end of the simulation, 90 percent of agents were gossipers.

Researchers argue people tend to be more likely to cooperate in the presence of a known gossiper because they want to protect their own reputation and avoid becoming subject to the rumor mill. Meanwhile, for the actual gossipers, receiving another person’s cooperation can serve as a reward in itself.

“If other people are going to be on their best behavior because they know that you gossip, then they’re more likely to cooperate with you on things,” Prof. Nau comments. “The fact that you gossip ends up providing a benefit to you as a gossiper. That then inspires others to gossip because they can see that it provides a reward.”

Study authors contend that gossip proliferates because sharing info regarding different people’s reputations can have a “selfishness deterrence” effect on the recipients. Put another way, the people who hear gossip end up conditioning their behavior on others’ reputations. Since no one wants to be the subject of future gossip, this deters people from acting selfishly. Due to their capacity to influence others and encourage cooperation, researchers say gossipers have an “evolutionary advantage” that perpetuates the gossip cycle and also provides listeners with a useful service.

Researchers from the University of Maryland and University of Stanford believe the resident blabbermouth may not be worthy of shunning after all. (Credit: Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels)

While gossip undeniably holds a negative societal connotation, Pan stresses the information gossipers share can be complimentary. Regardless of the content, gossip serves a useful function.

“Positive and negative gossip are both important because gossip plays an important role in sharing information about people’s reputations,” continues Pan, who is now an assistant professor at The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shenzhen. “Once people have this information, cooperative people can find other good people to cooperate with, and this is actually beneficial for the group. So gossiping is not always a bad thing. It can be a positive thing.”

The simulation also accounted for different factors that either help or hinder the spread of gossip. This led to confirmation of what past research has already shown: Small-town gossipers aren’t just a movie trope.

“The model highlights contexts in which we can expect more gossipers to evolve, particularly when social networks have high connectivity and mobility is low, consistent with research on rural areas,” Prof. Gelfand notes. “It gives clues to contexts where gossiping may be more or less likely to flourish.”

Prof. Nau says their research did not encompass the full scope of human complexity, nor can it replace behavioral studies. Despite all of that, computer simulations can yield useful new theories inspiring follow-up research involving human participants.

People are very complicated and we can’t come up with a simulation that does everything that people do, nor would we want to,” Prof. Nau adds. “Since it’s an oversimplification, you can’t say conclusively that this is how people behave, but you can develop insights. Those can then lead to scientific hypotheses that you can try to investigate through studies that involve human participants.”

Moving forward, researchers want to conduct a follow-up study aimed at testing one of their simulation’s predictions on human participants; the notion that gossip is effective when people don’t have any other methods of gathering information about other peoples’ reputations.

“That, for me, is one of the really exciting parts of this,” Prof. Nau concludes. “If we can come up with hypotheses and verify the predictions of those models on human studies, then that’s what makes this kind of thing useful.”

All in all, study authors say there is one thing they can already say with confidence: Based on the overwhelming number of gossipers in their simulation and in real life, gossiping isn’t going away anytime soon.

The study is published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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John Anderer

Born blue in the face, John has been writing professionally for over a decade and covering the latest scientific research for StudyFinds since 2019. His work has been featured by Business Insider, Eat This Not That!, MSN, Ladders, and Yahoo!

Studies and abstracts can be confusing and awkwardly worded. He prides himself on making such content easy to read, understand, and apply to one’s everyday life.

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  1. I don’t have time….and have never had time for gossip. Mind your own business, treat everyone the way would like to be treated, keep your word and if someone confides in you….keep that confidence.

    It has worked for me over the last 50 years.

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