Student Well-Being

Researchers: Gossip May Have Some Benefits (Even in Schools)

By Ross Brenneman — February 03, 2014 4 min read
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Pass it around: A new study shows that while not all gossip is good, some gossip yields real societal benefits.

The study, done by researchers from Stanford University and University of California, Berkeley, explores the relationship between spreading information and social pressure. It found that, facing the threat of reputational harm and exclusion from a group, people will lessen their antisocial tendencies.

“Although we have a single word for gossip, it’s multiple different things,” researcher Matthew Feinberg said in an interview. “And some of it serves a really important purpose.” Feinberg suggested that the study may lead teachers to rethink the way they handle some student gossip.

Study participants used a public-goods game to weed out the selfish. In a public-goods game (one of many collective-action problems), individuals are each given a certain amount of points (or dollars, or whatever), and can choose to either contribute adequately to the collective group, or be selfish and hoard their stock. After making their decisions, the group pot doubles, and is divided up equally.

Avid game theorists will see the trick: If everyone puts in, everyone gets more than they had. If everyone except one person puts in, they’ll all have more, but the selfish one will have the most. But if everyone is selfish, no one’s points grow. (I’ll save you the mathematical breakdown, but you get the picture.)

In the experiment, participants played the game in groups of four, and played several rounds with constantly changing groups; no two people were in the same group twice. The experiment also came with two variations beyond the control game. In one variation, players would learn who had been selfish at the end of each round and, via a computer prompt, had the option to warn the selfish person’s next group to be on the lookout for greed; this step was tantamount to gossip. In the other variation, players could still gossip, but the new group could also vote to preemptively ostracize selfish players, to avoid having them leach from the group.

The researchers found that, as the rounds wore on, players in the gossip rounds gave more than in the normal rounds, as they worried about their reputations. When playing in the ostracization rounds, when both reputation and participation could be threatened, players doled out even more. And most significantly, when ostracized participants returned to play after being excluded for a round, they gave more, too.

Indeed, according to Feinberg, the very act of being in the gossip-with-ostracization variant could shore up attitudes toward sharing.

Different Kinds of Gossip

The study, in essence, argues for distinguishing between different kinds of gossip—the good, “prosocial” kind that undercuts selfishness, and the bad stuff that ruins reputations and courts bullying.

The two faces of gossip are perhaps most apparent on the Internet.

“Thanks to Yelp, you have a better sense of which restaurant you can trust,” Feinberg said. “Other restaurants and mechanics also realize their reputations are on the line, thanks to Yelp and other sites.”

But online gossip news, of course, isn’t all five stars. As sites like Gawker, which utilizes the motto that “Today’s gossip is tomorrow’s news,” profligate, seemingly local stories can be propelled to national prominence so long as they happened within sight of a camera. That’s how the world ended up knowing about the Florida woman who stole a reporter’s car on camera. Or which ordinary people railed against Coca Cola’s Super Bowl XLVIII ad featuring a multilingual “America the Beautiful.” Yet plenty of benign things can end up being widely shared, too.

“You lose privacy” with this kind of gossip, Feinberg said. “You lose the ability to be a little different and not get punished, not get ostracized for doing so.”

But considering the potential benefits of prosocial gossip—gossip that can encourage people to be and do better—Feinberg sees some curious behavior in school.

“I know we seem to have a strange, cultural nuance to not tell on your fellow classmates even if they cheated or behaved selfishly or maybe did something really wrong, and I’m curious why that arm exists. It seems like [telling], like in an anonymous way, writing a note to a teacher—I think that would be beneficial.”

The researchers are interested in further gossip studies. In the experiment, participants spread gossip through a prompt that would then be sent to the selfish participant’s next group. Feinberg noted that it would be interesting to see the effect of allowing the gossip to go to only one other member of the next group, and see how it spreads that way. If I had to guess, that’s how we end up with people like Anthony Crispino:

So how do you stop bad gossip, then? That’s one secret I’ll never tell. (Because I don’t know.)


A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.