February 21, 2020   8:53am

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Do people believe facts or gossip?

You think gossip doesn’t matter?  Think again

According to John Tierney in The New York Times*, “Facts Prove No Match for Gossip.”  It seems some evolutionary biologists in Germany and Austria set out to test the power of gossip because in recent decades a number of theorists have given it great credence.  The theory was that “Gossip told people whom to trust, and the prospect of a bad reputation discouraged them from acting selfishly, so large groups could peacefully cooperate.”  In other words, “gossip promoted the ‘indirect reciprocity’ that made human society possible.”

The testing was held with 126 students who participated in a game of giving out money; some were generous and others were miserly.  There was a constant dilemma of when to give and when not to.

Early on, the theory of ‘indirect reciprocity’ seemed to be reinforced, but as the game continued each participant was given both hard facts — a record of how his partner had behaved previously — as well as some gossip – positive gossip in one round, negative in another.

The donor was told that the source of the gossip didn’t have any extra information beyond what the donor could already see for himself. Yet the gossip, whether positive or negative, still had a big influence on the donors’ decisions, and it didn’t even matter if the source of the gossip had a good reputation himself. On average, cooperation increased by about 20 percent if the gossip was good, and fell by 20 percent if the gossip was negative.

You might think that the gossip would only matter in borderline cases, for example, when the partner had a mixed record of generosity.  But that wasn’t the case.

Even when a player saw that his partner had a record of consistent meanness, he could be swayed to reward by positive gossip or to withhold just on the basis of malicious buzz.  People trusted what others said over what they personally had experienced and seen for themselves.

According to one researcher, “If you know you already have the full information about someone, rationally you shouldn’t care so much what someone else says …perhaps, we are just more adapted to listen to other information than to observe people, because most of the time we’re not able to observe how other people are behaving. Thus we might believe we have missed something…”


*The New York Times, Science Times, Findings, “Pssst:  Facts Prove No Match For Gossip,” by John Tierney, Tuesday, October 16, 2007, pg D1

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