The words your colleagues whisper when they gather at the water cooler could hurt your reputation, even if they know the rumors are untrue. In a new study, scientists found that gossip might be more powerful than direct observation in determining how we judge people.
Gossip often stings, but research shows that behind-the-back chatter is not always bad. Gossip enforces group norms and strengthens social bonds. Past studies have found that people care more about the information passed on if it concerns someone of the same age or gender. Moreover, they are most likely to pass on negative news about high-status people or positive news about friends. In this way, gossip shapes reputation. Because reputation helps determine whether people cooperate, researchers want to know how gossip affects our opinions of others.
To find out, Ralf Sommerfeld, a Ph.D. student at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology in Plön, Germany, and colleagues turned to a computer-based game. Groups of nine students sat with laptops at a table separated by partitions so their decisions remained anonymous. In each round, the players had to decide whether to give a set amount of money to an assigned, but still anonymous, partner within the group. When one player decides to give money to another, the two have cooperated. As the game continued, players switched partners. They also received additional information, as the researchers told the players what decisions their new partners had made in the past and what other players wrote about their partners. Examples of their judgments include "generous player" and "nasty miser." In later rounds, researchers also introduced gossip statements about the players.
Reporting online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the team reveals that when players were given the record of their partner's past decisions and the comments from other players--or from the researchers writing as players--they paid more attention to the gossip. Bad gossip could trump a record of generosity. "People might adjust their own views of the world to the perceptions of others," Sommerfeld says. "They don't want to stick out. In a way, that is scary."
Anthropologist Kevin Kniffin of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, cautions that cooperation is more complicated in the real world. "It is important to recognize the presence of power differences," he says. "Since some people's opinions are more important than others', some people's opinions carry more consequences than others'." Sommerfeld acknowledges that real-life situations include other factors. Sometimes, he says, there is more than one source of gossip, and often people know whether their sources are trustworthy. Also, outside of a game, gossiping is risky: The rumors people spread can damage their reputations.