Go Ahead and Gossip

Go Ahead and Gossip

I never thought I’d say this, but here goes: It turns out that gossip can be good. By “good” I don’t just mean “fun,” although if we are honest with ourselves we will admit that sitting down and hearing, or even sharing, some really juicy gossip can be highly enjoyable. Rather, what I mean is that scientists have discovered that gossiping can be very beneficial to group functioning.

The Study

Dr. Matthew Feinberg, Dr. Robb Willer, and Michael Schultz recently published a study in Psychological Science, which is the flagship journal of the Association for Psychological Science, titled “Gossip and Ostracism Promote Cooperation in Groups” (http://bit.ly/OkiiL5). The study divided 216 participants into groups and had them decide whether to make financial choices that would benefit their group. Next, the participants moved to a new group and began again, but before moving to the new group they were allowed to gossip about their prior group members.

As anyone who has worked with a large group knows, large groups often contain a few people who free-ride off of everyone else’s contributions. You know who I’m talking about – the person who is always too busy to help out but then happily splits the team bonus. In part, this is because it is difficult to design a large group project that doesn’t incentivize people to free-ride.

According to the researchers, gossip may be the glue that helps to hold these groups together and encourage cooperation. Their study results showed that people readily talked about others (as I said, it can be fun), but that this gossip did not go to waste. People on the new teams who heard the gossip used the information to ostracize people who had behaved selfishly and to work with people who had a reputation for being cooperative.

Furthermore, people who were ostracized then significantly raised their amount of cooperation, presumably to improve their reputations. In other words, gossip allowed people to work with cooperative people and to essentially pressure selfish people into changing their behavior.

The Real World

I’m not quite sure how this study translates to the real work world. On the one hand, it seems that people already instinctively know this about gossip. For example, in team settings, everyone always knows who the “go to” person is who will come through and get things done. And they also know who is liable to slack off, take credit that isn’t due to them, and generally infuriate those who work with them. That “knowledge” is usually passed in the form of gossip.

On the other hand, the gossip discussed in the Psychological Science article seems to be limited to information that is relevant to someone’s behavior in the workplace. In other words, people were not spreading a lot of malicious information about other people’s private lives but instead were focused on the individuals’ behavior as it related to the game everyone was playing.

As I write this, I realize that I am not quite comfortable exhorting you to, “Go ahead and gossip,” even though that is the title of this month’s newsletter. It gives me fears of hours spent around the water cooler discussing your cubicle mate’s choices in shoes, significant others, and lawn gnomes. But perhaps I can say, “Go ahead and engage in ‘reputational information sharing,'” as sociologists and psychologists would call it.


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