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News: Gossip May Have Social Benefits, Study Suggests

Secret secrets are no fun— except when they help protect people from others' bad behavior. New research suggests certain kinds of gossip may have important social and benefits.
News: Gossip May Have Social Benefits, Study Suggests
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Hey, have you heard? A new study suggests there could be health benefits to an all-out bash fest. Prosocial gossip, or sharing negative information about someone in order to protect others, may have some social perks: It can reduce stress, prevent bad behavior, and even encourage generosity [1]. The research implies certain kinds of gossip may be socially and psychologically valuable—while rumors about who slept with whom can just hurt feelings.

Researchers ran a series of small experiments in which participants watched “economic trust games,” or computer games that simulate real-life financial decisions. And most subjects really took the rules to heart— when they noticed cheating, their heart rates increased. But gossiping proved a useful stress-buster: Participants’ heartbeats slowed when they had a chance to send the next player a note that warned them about the sneaky behavior. In fact, even when people lost money for sending the cheat-alert, most of them still opted to send it.

And it turns out even the threat of gossip puts people on their best behavior. Participants— especially the ones who scored high on measures of selfishness— played much more fairly when they thought observers could gossip about them if they cheated.

The study authors say prosocial gossip may serve an evolutionary function, since it’s important for preserving social order and controlling selfishness. But blabbermouths, beware: This study focused on sharing negative information to help people, and not just to make friends at the water cooler. Researchers think spreading rumors for their own sake probably isn’t socially beneficial. (Obviously whispering about a friend’s hideous haircut is prosocial— we’re stopping everyone else from making the same faux-pas!) So try to keep the Perez-Hilton impulse under wraps, and save the venting for something really awful, like when someone snags that favorite spot in the yoga studio— how rude.

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Works Cited +

  1. The virtues of gossip: Reputational information sharing as prosocial behavior. Feinberg, M., Willer, R., Stellar, J., et al. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2012. Epub ahead of print.

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