1. Study examines role of gossip in interpersonal relationships

    October 11, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Springer press release:

    Although both men and women gossip, women may be more likely to use gossiping and rumour-mongering as tactics to badmouth a potential rival who is competing for a man’s attention. Women also gossip more about other women’s looks, whereas men talk about cues to resource holding (e.g., wealth) and the athleticism of their competitors. According to Adam Davis of the University of Ottawa in Canada, gossiping is a highly evolved social skill and an intrasexual competition tactic that relates to women’s and men’s evolved preferences. He therefore sees it as essential for interpersonal relationships, and not a flaw of character. Davis is the lead author of a study in Springer’s journal Evolutionary Psychological Science that provides the first verifiable evidence for a positive link between intrasexual competitiveness, the amount of gossip that people take part in, and whether they are OK with such talk or not. Scholars agree that gossip has evolved as an efficient way to learn more about others, and to enforce group norms. It is also a method by which people can learn more about their rivals, and can call into question their reputation, especially when they are vying for the same romantically or sexually desirable mates.

    In this study, 290 heterosexual Canadian students between the ages of 17 and 30 years old completed three questionnaires. One measured how competitive the participants are towards members of the same sex as their own, especially in terms of access to the attention of potential mates. The other questionnaires measured the tendency and likelihood of the participants to gossip about others, the perceived social value of gossip, and whether it is okay to talk about others behind their backs.

    It was found that people who were competitive towards members of their own sex had a greater tendency to gossip. They were also more comfortable with the practice than others. Women had a greater tendency to gossip than men, and they also enjoyed it more, and saw more value in participating in such chit-chat. Men were more likely to gossip about the achievements of others. Such talk among women often targeted the physical appearance of another, and was used to share social information. Women also found gossip to have greater social value, which may allow them gather more information about possible competitors in the game of finding a mate. It may also help to hone their ability to gossip in future.

    According to Davis, these findings provide evidence that gossip is an intrasexual competition tactic that corresponds to women’s and men’s evolved mate preferences. It also reflects the different strategies used by the sexes in their quest to find suitable mates.

    “The findings demonstrate that gossip is intimately linked to mate competition and not solely the product of a female gender stereotype that may be viewed as pejorative,” states Davis, who believes that therapists, counsellors, educators, and the general public should rethink their stance about gossip. “It is a highly evolved social skill essential for interpersonal relationships, rather than a flaw of character.”


  2. Study suggests 1 of every 7 corporate messages involves gossip

    June 7, 2012 by Sue

    From the Georgia Tech press release:

    According to some estimates, the average corporate email user sends 112 emails every day. About one out of every seven of those messages, says a new study from Georgia Tech, can be called gossip.

    Assistant Professor Eric Gilbert of the School of Interactive Computing examined hundreds of thousands of emails from the former Enron corporation and found that—by the definition of “gossip” as messages that contain information about a person or persons not among the recipients—14.7 percent of the emails qualify as office scuttlebutt. What’s more, Gilbert found that gossip is prevalent at all levels of the corporate hierarchy, though lower levels gossip the most. (Click here to watch a YouTube video about this research.)

    “Gossip gets a bad rap,” said Gilbert, an expert in social computing who runs the Comp.Social Lab at Georgia Tech. “When you say ‘gossip,’ most people immediately have a negative interpretation, but it’s actually a very important form of communication. Even tiny bits of information, like ‘Eric said he’d be late for this meeting,’ add up; after just a few of those messages, you start to get an impression that Eric is a late person. Gossip is generally how we know what we know about each other, and for this study we viewed it simply as a means to share social information.”

    Still, another finding was that “negative” gossip, characterized through a Natural Language Text Processing analysis, was in fact 2.7 times more prevalent than positive gossip, though a significant portion of the messages were sentiment-neutral. The findings, according to Gilbert and Ph.D. student Tanushree Mitra, represent an important test of anthropological theories about gossip in what can reasonably be called the world’s most popular electronic social medium: email.

    “There is a rich literature in anthropology and sociology on the universality and utility of gossip among human social groups,” Mitra said. “A recent survey of that literature summarized gossip as having four main purposes: information, entertainment, intimacy and influence. We found evidence of all those categories in the Enron emails, relating to both business and personal relationships.”

    The researchers divided the emails among seven layers of Enron hierarchy, from rank-and-file office employees all the way up to presidents and CEOs, and found gossip emails flowing within and among nearly every level, with the heaviest flow among the rank-and-file. However, the second heaviest flow within a single level occurred among Enron vice presidents and directors, and by a wide margin the strongest upward flow of gossip was from the vice presidents and directors up one level to presidents and CEOs. Vice presidents and directors also gossiped the most down the chain, with the heaviest downward flow originating from their level and ending up at the lowest, rank-and-file level.

    Might these findings be unique to Enron? After all, actions leading to the energy-trading company’s 2001 bankruptcy have earned it a notorious place in U.S. corporate history. Could such an environment lead to social behavior that is outside the norm?

    “Enron certainly had what could be called a ‘cowboy culture,’ but I suspect the way they behaved internally to each other did not differ significantly from most other U.S. corporations,” Gilbert said. “A lot of the emails we’re looking at were from the rank-and-file, and it was the Enron CEOs—a tiny fraction of its employee population—who initiated and directed the actions that brought the company down. The average employee had no idea what was going on.”

    Indeed, the Enron corpus—some 600,000 messages purchased following the company’s bankruptcy and now made freely available for study—represents the world’s largest publicly accessible body of naturally occurring emails, and it has provided grist for numerous scientific and technical advances. For example, Gilbert said, email spam filters took a huge leap forward in efficiency in 2005 due largely to advancements made from analyzing the Enron corpus. And recently, Gilbert himself used Enron emails to discover that certain words and phrases in email strongly predict whether those messages are delivered up or down the corporate hierarchy. Still, he admitted to finding a slightly higher level of workplace gossip flowing around via email than he expected.

    “I was a little surprised that it turned out to be almost 15 percent,” Gilbert said. “But then again, gossip is something we all do in every aspect of our lives. I imagine corporate executives will probably take note of this—and then send an email to Jennifer down the hall saying that Bob in purchasing gossips all the time.”

    Gilbert’s and Mitra’s findings are summarized in the paper “Have You Heard? How Gossip Flows Through Workplace Email,” which Mitra is presenting today at the 6th International AAAI Conference on Weblogs and Social Media (ICWSM ’12), being held at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland.


  3. Study looks at psychological upside of prosocial gossip

    January 18, 2012 by Sue

    From the UC Berkeley press release:

    For centuries, gossip has been dismissed as salacious, idle chatter that can damage reputations and erode trust. But a new study from the University of California, Berkeley, suggests rumor-mongering can have positive outcomes such as helping us police bad behavior, prevent exploitation and lower stress.

    “Gossip gets a bad rap, but we’re finding evidence that it plays a critical role in the maintenance of social order,” said UC Berkeley social psychologist Robb Willer, a coauthor of the study published in this month’s online issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

    The study also found that gossip can be therapeutic. Volunteers’ heart rates increased when they witnessed someone behaving badly, but this increase was tempered when they were able to pass on the information to alert others.

    “Spreading information about the person whom they had seen behave badly tended to make people feel better, quieting the frustration that drove their gossip,” Willer said.

    So strong is the urge to warn others about unsavory characters that participants in the UC Berkeley study sacrificed money to send a “gossip note” to warn those about to play against cheaters in economic trust games. Overall, the findings indicate that people need not feel bad about revealing the vices of others, especially if it helps save someone from exploitation, the researchers said.

    “We shouldn’t feel guilty for gossiping if the gossip helps prevent others from being taken advantage of,” said Matthew Feinberg, a UC Berkeley social psychologist and lead author of the paper.

    The study focused on “prosocial” gossip that “has the function of warning others about untrustworthy or dishonest people,” said Willer, as opposed to the voyeuristic rumor-mongering about the ups and downs of such tabloid celebrities as Kim Kardashian and Charlie Sheen.

    In a series of four experiments, researchers used games in which the players’ generosity toward each other was measured by how many dollars or points they shared. In the first experiment, 51 volunteers were hooked up to heart rate monitors as they observed the scores of two people playing the game. After a couple of rounds, the observers could see that one player was not playing by the rules and was hoarding all the points.

    Observers’ heart rates increased as they witnessed the cheating, and most seized the opportunity to slip a “gossip note” to warn a new player that his or her contender was unlikely to play fair. The experience of passing on the information calmed this rise in heart rate.

    Passing on the gossip note ameliorated their negative feelings and tempered their frustration,” Willer said. “Gossiping made them feel better.”

    In the second experiment, 111 participants filled out questionnaires about their level of altruism and cooperativeness. They then observed monitors showing the scores from three rounds of the economic trust game, and saw that one player was cheating.

    The more prosocial observers reported feeling frustrated by the betrayal and then relieved to be given a chance to pass a gossip note to the next player to prevent exploitation.

    “A central reason for engaging in gossip was to help others out – more so than just to talk trash about the selfish individual,” Feinberg said.  “Also, the higher participants scored on being altruistic, the more likely they were to experience negative emotions after witnessing the selfish behavior and the more likely they were to engage in the gossip.”

    To raise the stakes, participants in the third experiment were asked to go so far as to sacrifice the pay they received to be in the study if they wanted to send a gossip note. Moreover, their sacrifice would not negatively impact the selfish player’s score. Still, a large majority of observers agreed to take the financial hit just to send the gossip note.

    “People paid money to gossip even when they couldn’t affect the selfish person’s outcome,” Feinberg said.

    In the final study, 300 participants from around the country were recruited via Craigslist to play several rounds of the economic trust game online. They played using raffle tickets that would be entered in a drawing for a $50 cash prize –-an extra incentive to hold on to as many raffle tickets as possible.

    Some players were told that the observers during a break could pass a gossip note to players in the next round to alert them to individuals not playing fairly. The threat of being the subject of negative gossip spurred virtually all the players to act more generously, especially those who had scored low on an altruism questionnaire taken prior to the game.

    Together, the results from all four experiments show that “when we observe someone behave in an immoral way, we get frustrated,” Willer said. “But being able to communicate this information to others who could be helped makes us feel better.”

    Other coauthors of the paper are UC Berkeley psychologists Dacher Keltner and Jennifer Stellar.