Psst. I Hear That Gossip Is Not All Bad.

The Huffington Post:

When I was growing up, there was a woman in the neighborhood known as The Mayor. She was not a mayor in any official sense, and in fact held no political office. She was a busybody and a gossip, and she made it her mission to spread the word on other neighbors’ lives — who got a DUI last night, whose teenage daughter was pregnant, who got fired at the factory and whose car dealership was struggling. Her specialty was scandal-mongering, but truth be told, she usually had her facts right.

Gossips have a reputation for being trivial and petty and often meanspirited. But is it possible that such babbling serves some valuable social purpose? Social scientists have debated this question for years, and now a team of researchers in California is offering a new idea about the upside of gossip. Matthew Feinberg of Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business and colleagues propose that gossip is key to making communities aware of people’s reputations — good and bad — and that this knowledge of people’s actions and character is essential for the cooperation that forms society’s foundation.

If true, this theory would illuminate one of the great puzzles of psychological science — why humans cooperate so readily, when self-interested exploitation would seem more advantageous. Feinberg and his colleagues believe that gossip fosters widespread cooperation, but only when it is paired with the power to ostracize scoundrels. That is, if you and I are made aware of others past behavior, we can use this knowledge to choose who to do business with in the future — and to exclude those who have earned a reputation for selfishness and dishonesty.

Read the whole story: The Huffington Post

Wray Herbert is an author and award-winning journalist who writes two popular blogs for APS, We’re Only Human and Full Frontal Psychology. Follow Wray on Twitter @wrayherbert.

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