Sure, repeating false rumors or revealing secrets can be malicious and hurtful. But "prosocial" gossip—the sort that helps others by warning them about treacherous or deceitful people—may have a number of beneficial effects, from stopping antisocial behavior to relieving stress, according to University of California at Berkeley study results reported in the university's news center.
The study included four separate experiments. In each of the experiments, participants either observed or participated in economic trust games—that is, games designed to measure trust between people for research purposes—in which other participants were cheating.
In the first experiment, participants observed games while hooked up to heart rate monitors. Researchers noticed when these participants saw one player cheating their heart rates went up. But scientists noted that those who took the opportunity to pass a "gossip note" to warn a new player about the cheater experienced a lowered heart rate.
In the second experiment, participants completed questionnaires designed to measure how cooperative and altruistic they were. Then they watched three rounds of the economic trust game and observed one player cheating. Participants whose questionnaires rated them higher in altruism reported being distressed by the cheating. They were also more likely to pass a gossip note to warn a new player.
In the third experiment, researchers told participants that if they wanted to send a gossip note, they'd have to give up the (real!) money they would receive for participating in the experiment. In addition, scientists told these participants the note wouldn't reduce the cheating player's score. Despite knowing they'd lose dollars, a sizable majority of participants were willing to relinquish the money to send a warning.
In the fourth experiment, participants played the trust game online using tickets for a raffle with a $50 cash prize. When some players were told people observing the game could send gossip notes to warn players about cheating, almost all of them played with more generosity afterward, even though this lowered their chances of winning the prize. (This extra generosity was especially noticeable among players who'd scored low on the altruism-measuring questionnaire.)
After reviewing the results as a whole, researchers concluded that prosocial gossip is a healthy activity for the gossiper as well as for the community. "When we observe someone behave in an immoral way, we get frustrated," said Robb Willer, PhD, MA, an assistant professor of sociology at Berkeley, and the study's coauthor. "But being able to communicate this information to others who could be helped makes us feel better."
Well, in that case, did you hear what so-and-so did?