Study: Gossip can be good for society

WTOP's Randi Martin: "Gossip can be good"

wtopstaff | November 15, 2014 12:17 am

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WASHINGTON– Mean girls, look out! Gossip can be used for good.

A study conducted recently at Stanford University looked at the dynamics of people working within a group, and how problems occur when the classic egotistical and selfish bully takes over, derailing and damaging progress and equanimity fostered by the rest.

The test was to see if a dose of their own medicine would change their bullying behavior and how this might benefit social situations across society.

Published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, the study explores the nature of gossip and ostracism. The findings indicate that when the rest of the group starts freezing out the bullies, and “gossiping” about their weaknesses and transgressions, their behavior is likely to change.

“Groups do even better if they can gossip and ostracize untrustworthy members. While both of these behaviors can be misused, our findings suggest that they also serve very important functions for groups and society,” said Dr. Matthew Feinberg, one of the researchers quoted in a Daily Mail report on the study.

The study organized 216 people into groups and set up a scenario where “bullies” emerged among them and the others were encouraged to flush them out. The results revealed that when bullies returned to the group, they appeared to have learned from the experience.

“Those who do not reform their behavior, behaving selfishly despite the risk of gossip and ostracism, tended to be targeted by other group members who took pains to tell future group members about the person’s untrustworthy behavior,” Robb Willer, an associate professor of sociology at Stanford University, said. “These future groups could then detect and exclude more selfish individuals, ensuring they could avoid being taken advantage of.”

“Groups that allow their members to gossip,” added Feinberg, “sustain cooperation and deter selfishness better than those that don’t.”

WTOP’s Kelley Vlahos and Randi Martin contributed to this report. Follow @WTOP on Twitter and on the WTOP Facebook page.

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