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Gossip's Good Side: Dartmouth Researcher Finds Sharing It Aids Learning, Boosts Cooperation

Wooden cubes with speech bubbles linked to each other with lines.
A Dartmouth postdoc researcher found that gossip can facilitate learning, build social connections, and increase cooperation within a group. The research was published in Current Biology.

Hey, c'mere a second. Have you heard about this new research out of Dartmouth that shows gossip may actually be beneficial? Word is, a postdoctoral researcher worked with a psychology and brain science professor to find out if gossip gets an undeserved bad rap.VPR's Mitch Wertlieb spoke with Eshin Jolly, a postdoctoral researcher at Dartmouth College, about the research into the learning and social aspects of gossip with Luke Chang, an assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences and director of the Dartmouth's Computational Social Affective Neuroscience Laboratory. Their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

A photo of Eshin Jolly is a postdoctoral researcher in the Computational Social Affective Neuroscience Laboratory.
Credit Courtesy
Eshin Jolly is a postdoctoral researcher in the Computational Social Affective Neuroscience Laboratory, or COSAN.

Eshin Jolly: Both in our everyday lives, but also as researchers, we sort of noticed how often people are exchanging gossip, how sort of ubiquitous it is as a behavior. And so that led us to wonder, why do people do it? What are the circumstances under which they tend to do it, and what value or function does it provide people?

Mitch Wertlieb: Some people naturally gravitate toward gossip. For them it's, you know, it's juicy, it's something they enjoy either hearing or passing along. But I think it's safe to say that for the most part, that word carries a negative connotation. It's something people say behind someone else's back. And it's not usually very complimentary about that person.

Is there a "good" kind of gossip versus a "bad" kind of gossip?

It's not that gossip itself is good or bad in nature, but it's the the way that we end up using it. It's sort of more of a surface-level view. And I think there's a lot more richness going on. Gossip, in our view, is a way by which we sort of resolve uncertainty about the social world, and find a way to come to trust each other and see if we share the same perspective on social behaviors and social norms.

Well, how did you go about conducting this research? I understand that a kind of online game scenario was deployed.

That's correct. So we borrowed an approach popularized by behavioral economics and had people play what's called a public goods game. And the idea is, this is a sort of multiplayer game of trust. On each round over ten rounds of this game, we give people a small amount of money, and they're faced with a decision to either keep that money for themselves, or contributed to a group pot. And that group pot gets multiplied by one and a half, and then distributed evenly to everybody, regardless of whether they had contributed or not.

A picture of the flow of information during an experiment using a social game
Credit Current Biology, Courtesy
Eshin Jolly's experiment, using a social game, was able to manipulate both the amount of information other players had about each player's actions, as well as the ability for players to gossip privately during the game.

The idea here is, the game kind of creates an inherent tension between cooperating on the one hand, which would be maximally beneficial to everybody, and being self-interested on the other, in which you keep your own money, but still benefit from the contributions of others.

We sort of tweaked this a little bit, where we manipulated two factors. One was whether you could see the contribution behavior of all other people that you're playing with, or whether you could just see the contribution behavior of a few of those people, and we would refer to those as your immediate neighbors in a social network sense.

And the other factor that we manipulated was, whether you could exchange private conversations and messages with another person in the game. And the idea here is to try to create a scenario a bit like the real world, where you're part of a small community, and you're affected by the actions of everybody in your community. But you can only observe firsthand some of those people.

What kind of results did this gaming scenario produce?

If you're playing in this game, you tend to change and adapt your future behavior based upon the actions of other people in your group in the past, regardless of whether you can directly observe them or not. And so gossip, in that sense, is a way for you to learn via somebody else's experiences about other people, and then sort of adjust your behavior accordingly.

A complicated diagram
Credit Current Biology, Courtesy
Among the results of Eshin Jolly's experiment, he found discussion about others in the game provided a way to learn about others when direct observations were not possible. Such social discussions, or gossip, also influenced the impressions of those participant that players could not observe directly.

The other piece that we find is that the people who are exchanging gossip with each other come to trust each other more. And not only that, their views and impressions of other people that they're playing with in the game tend to become more similar over time. What we sort of take away from this is that, gossip is a means by which we can not only learn about other people, but the act of doing so brings us closer together, and ultimately, sort of shapes the way that we tend to see other people, and increases the similarity with which we we tend to see other people.

Is it too much of a stretch to say then that in a way, gossip can be a path toward empathy for others?

It's possible that gossip can be a way by which we can understand other people. What we tend to think of as gossip is a way by which we can sort of check in and say, "Hey, if I tell you so and so did this," what I'm really asking is, "Do you agree that this behavior is or isn't acceptable? Do you view the social world in the same way that I do?"

In this gaming scenario, you talked about how those who were gossiping among each other did gain this greater understanding of the group as a whole. Did it produce what I would call, I guess, a "positive outcome," though? In other words, did them talking to each other create a situation where more people were pooling their money in, even though they didn't have to?

Yeah, that's precisely what we find. So in scenarios where people can exchange gossip with each other, typically in this public goods game, this multiplayer game, you tend to see this sort of unraveling of cooperative behavior. People quickly realize they can financially benefit by freeriding on the generosity of others. But when people tend to exchange gossip, we see a much shallower decline. People tend to maintain their cooperation for longer.

And what's particularly interesting, it's not that necessarily every single person's behavior its changing. It's that the people who are exchanging gossip are sort of creating a new norm of behaviors... where they're deciding that they're going to cooperate. And by virtue of doing that, and demonstrating that to other people, those people start to change their behavior as well.

Gossip seems, in one way, a really natural thing for humans. We're highly social animals, we engage in this kind of behavior all the time. Does the research point to a path where gossip can be handled better and be less harmful to people?

If we sort of take this view of gossip as a way by which we can learn and share our experiences with other people, I think that's maybe one way to overcome this tendency to view it as primarily disparaging and negative.

I can help you understand something through my own lived experiences, in that sense, I can help you out, and you can do the same for me.

Editor's note: Jolly's comments with regard to maintaining cooperation through sharing gossip have been clarified.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet Morning Edition host Mitch Wertlieb @mwertlieb.

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A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
Matt Smith worked for Vermont Public from 2017 to 2023 as managing editor and senior producer of Vermont Edition.
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