If you can’t resist passing on a little tittle-tattle don’t be too hard on yourself. People who gossip are apparently doing us all a favour.
Far from idle chit chat, talking about others has benefits for both the gossiper and wider society, scientists from the University of California in Berkeley claim.
It can, hey say, help control bad behaviour, prevent someone being exploited and even lower stress.
The scientists carried out a series of detailed experiments to come up with their conclusion. And they didn’t involve meandering conversations over a garden fence.
The study focused on chatter known as ‘pro-social’ gossip, in which those passing on information are warning others about untrustworthy or dishonest people.
In the first experiment, 51 volunteers were hooked up to heart rate monitors as they checked the scores of two people playing a game. After a couple of rounds, they could see that one player was not playing by the rules and hoarding all the points.
Observers’ heart rates increased as they witnessed the cheating, and most seized the opportunity to slip a note to a new player warning that his or her opponent was unlikely to play fair. The experience of passing on the information reduced their heart rate.
'Passing on the gossip note ameliorated their negative feelings and tempered their frustration. Gossiping made them feel better,’ said Robb Willer, a social psychologist and co-author of the study.
In the second experiment, 111 volunteers filled out questionnaires about their level of altruism and cooperativeness. They then observed monitors showing the scores from three rounds of the game, and saw that one player was cheating.
The more ‘prosocial’ observers reported feeling frustrated by the betrayal and then relieved to be given a chance to pass a note to the next player to prevent them being exploited.
Matthew Feinberg, a social psychologist and lead author of the paper, wasn’t surprised.
'A central reason for engaging in gossip was to help others out – more so than just to talk trash about the selfish individual,’ he said.
'Also, the higher participants scored on being altruistic, the more likely they were to experience negative emotions after witnessing the selfish behavior and the more likely they were to engage in the gossip.
'We shouldn’t feel guilty for gossiping if the gossip helps prevent others from being taken advantage of.’
To raise the stakes, participants in the third experiment were asked to go so far as to sacrifice the pay they received to be in the study if they wanted to send a note warning the players about the cheats. Moreover, their sacrifice would not affect the selfish player’s score.
Still, a large majority of observers chose to pay just to send the warning anyway.
Researchers published their report in the online issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology and Mr Willer summed up the findings: ‘Gossip gets a bad rap but we’re finding evidence that it plays a critical role in the maintenance of social order.’