Gossip is often seen as useless trash talk about others, but we do it all the time. So why do we gossip? What value does it really provide us?
To answer these questions we measured thousands of real interactions.
We created an online game where participants tried to gather as many tokens as possible. At the end of the game, tokens were converted to real money.
The game was quite simple. At every turn, players chose to either keep their tokens or to contribute to the group account. The larger the group account, the more all players benefitted, as the account was doubled and redistributed equally. Instead, by free-riding or keeping all their tokens, players could maximize their individual earnings, thus taking advantage of others’ contributions.
Divided into groups of six, players could only message one group member - their conversation partner - and could only see the contributions of two other group members. Similarly,(On the other side of the team), their partner could see the contributions made by the last two group members.
In order to learn about the actions of all group members, players started to chat. Over 40,000 messages were shared by nearly 1000 people.
So what did they talk about?
One of the main topics of discussion was other players' contributions. By gossiping with their conversation partner, people learned about group members they couldn’t see.
Remarkably, players’ behaviors were more influenced by group members they heard about, rather than those they directly witnessed. Partners influenced each other’s actions in the game.
Gossip also helped build social connections. Conversation partners formed positive impressions of each other, regardless of how much they contributed. Partners also formed similar impressions of other players, including those they couldn’t see.
Surprisingly groups that exchanged more gossip contributed more. In other words, gossip made players more generous.
Overall, we observed that gossip built trust and accelerated the adoption of positive norms within groups.
So, why do we gossip? Gossip increases our knowledge of the world around us, creates bonds between people and shapes the way we act. In short, gossip is a powerful social tool that connects us.