Tell a fictitous story
enough times and people start to believe it. The same applies
to gossip. People are easily influenced by gossip about
others, even when it contradicts what they see with their
own eyes, suggests a new study.
Past research has found that gossip—those
juicy tidbits of supposed fact we share about a third party—serves
many purposes, including strengthening social ties, spreading
social norms and helping others avoid double-crossers and
other risky partners.
Hearsay can be the most reliable source of information about
situations with which you have no experience. But when you
hear gossip that's incongruent with a person or incident
you are familiar with, you'd be smart to throw that chitchat
out the window in favor of your own direct knowledge, right?
The new study, published this week online in the Proceedings
of the National Academy of Sciences, reveals individuals
sometimes place so much stock in gossip that they accept it
as true even if their own observations and experiences suggest
"Gossip has a strong manipulative potential that could
be used by cheaters to change the reputation of others or
even change their own," lead author Ralf Sommerfeld of
the Max-Planck-Institute for Evolutionary Biology and his
colleagues write. "This finding suggests that humans
are used to basing their decisions on gossip,
rumors or other spoken information."
Sommerfeld and his colleagues examined how gossip transmitted
information and how it affected another person's behavior.
In the study, 126 undergraduate biology students played
a computer-based game in which each student was paired up
with another student (via their computers) and had to decide
whether to give a certain amount of their starting money to
the partner. By dishing out 1.25 Euros, the receiver got 2
Euros, so being on the receiving end was a must. The assumption
was that in later rounds, your generosity would be rewarded
with generosity toward you.
Over a series of rounds, students switched their partners
and received that partner's track record—how many
times the person had given money and not given money. Students
were more likely to give money to cooperative partners who
had previously given money to others.
Then, they had to write a snippet of gossip about the other
players they had virtually-interacted with. Sommerfeld noted
some gossip examples: "He's a generous player"
or "He's a Scrooge, watch out."
No surprise: Players who read a positive comment about another
individual, having no knowledge of that person's past
generosity record, were more likely to hand over cash to that
individual. The opposite was true for negative gossip, where
players held tight to their money.
In another set of rounds, it got more interesting: Players
received information on each partner's track record (how
often they said "yes" and "no" to doling
out money) as well as the gossip blurb.
Without any added gossip information, students cooperated
62 percent of the time. That number increased to 75 percent
when students had positive gossip in addition to the partner's
track record. Even in instances where the partner had a track
record of no giving, positive gossip won out and the other
individual handed over money to their partner.
The weirder outcome is that negative gossip decreased cooperation
to just 50 percent, regardless of the players' track records.
"If people would act rationally, they would only base
their decisions on what they really see because they know
exactly the past behavior of these people," Sommerfeld
told LiveScience. "But they were still influenced
by this gossip."
Gossip also showed this persuasive power in light of any
information marring the reputation of the actual gossip monger.
For instance, participants acted on gossip even when a blurb
(also considered gossip) described the actual source as a
"nasty miser" or other uncooperative description.
The scientists suggest the added information might be an
overload for participants, or perhaps people don't link
cooperative behavior with gossip honesty.