Ask people to generate a list of social sins, and sooner or later, gossip is bound to come up. Sure, it pales in comparison to coveting thy neighbor, but the Bible does warn us that we should “not go about spreading slander.” And if your mother is like mine, she probably told you that if you don’t have anything nice to say, you shouldn’t say it at all.
But what if our moms were wrong?
In a series of new studies, social scientists have introduced a form of gossip that actually makes people better off. Imagine that you’re given $10. You can pass as much of the money as you want to Joe. The amount that you give him will be tripled, and he can then share as much as he wants with you. You decide to pass all $10 to Joe, so he now has $30. Instead of sharing the spoils, Joe keeps the entire $30 for himself, leaving you with nothing.
Now, Lisa is going to play the same game with Joe, and you have the chance to pass her a note. How would you feel—and what would you write?
In this experiment, led by the psychologist Matthew Feinberg, most people were irritated. Ninety-six percent of people chose to gossip about Joe. They wrote things like “Joe is not reliable; he’s playing for his own selfish interest.”
They were annoyed beforehand, but gossiping made them feel better, and their heart rates dropped as a result. “Witnessing the unfair play,” the researchers write, “led to elevated heart rates for participants who had no opportunity to gossip.”
Typically, gossiping is a way to get a leg up on others. It carries a veiled threat: if you cross me, I’ll spread bad news about you too. And by putting others down, we signal that we’re superior—and that we have access to privileged information.
But this kind of gossip is different. It’s called prosocial gossip, and it involves spreading negative reputational information about someone who harms, deceives, or exploits others.
Prosocial gossip comes from people who value fairness. In one of their studies, Feinberg’s team asked people to make decisions about sharing resources evenly, or preferred to maximize their own gains. A couple months later, they got to see Joe acting selfishly. The more they valued fairness, the more they gossiped prosocially. If you care about justice, you feel like it’s your mission in life to punish Joe—and to protect Lisa. You go out on a limb to deliver an important warning to everyone who might be vulnerable: Joe has a history of nefarious behavior, so don’t trust him.
In fact, 76% of people were willing to pay their own money for the opportunity to gossip about Joe. After receiving $5 for participating in the study, people paid an average of $1.19 to get a note to Lisa about Joe’s tendency to take advantage of others.
Prosocial gossip protects Lisa against Joe, but it also discourages Joe from being selfish. In another study, Feinberg’s team mentioned that people would have the chance to write notes to others who would play the game. This had no effect on people who valued fairness and generosity—they shared their resources regardless. But it transformed the behavior of the most selfish people.
On average, knowing that other people could find out about their behavior boosted the contributions of the most selfish players by 17-23%. This was enough to turn them into the most generous players. Under the threat of gossip, the takers actually gave more than the givers.
Prosocial gossip has three major benefits: it allows us to feel that we’re promoting justice, it protects other people against exploitation, and it encourages would-be exploiters to act more cooperatively and generously.
This doesn’t mean gossip is always good. In an emerging body of research, Shimul Melwani finds that if you gossip about members of your team, you’ll be seen as less trustworthy, and your team will become less cooperative and more political. Yet if you gossip about people on someone else’s team, you can actually build trust, promote cooperation, and dismantle politics. Putting down a common enemy is a form of social glue.
I used to see gossip as a vice, and most of the time, it probably is. After reflecting on this research, though, I’ve come to realize that prosocial gossip can be a virtue. Recently, I warned a student to proceed cautiously when dealing with an adviser who has a history of exploiting students. I also told a colleague about the checkered history of a potential business partner and shared some disconcerting feedback about a job candidate with a hiring committee.
I still prefer to say nice things about people behind their backs, but in these situations, I feel that I have a social responsibility to speak candidly. If I don’t warn people about the most manipulative and Machiavellian marauders in their midst, I’m leaving them vulnerable to attack. And if I don’t make it known that I’m willing to spread the word about bad behavior, I’m failing to deter it in the first place.
You asked for an explanation, and now you have it. This is why I’ve been gossiping more in the past few months.