More than half of all human communication is gossip. The majority of what we do when speaking face-to-face is trade information about people who aren’t in the room with us, and for the most part, according to our guest in this episode, that’s a good thing.
In this episode, psychologist Robb Willer explains why gossip is prosocial, and here’s an excerpt from his research into the topic:
“The widespread existence of cooperation is difficult to explain because individuals face strong incentives to exploit the cooperative tendencies of others. In the research reported here, we examined how the spread of reputational information through gossip promotes cooperation in mixed-motive settings.
Results showed that individuals readily communicated reputational information about others, and recipients used this information to selectively interact with cooperative individuals and ostracize those who had behaved selfishly, which enabled group members to contribute to the public good with reduced threat of exploitation.
Additionally, ostracized individuals responded to exclusion by subsequently cooperating at levels comparable to those who were not ostracized. These results suggest that the spread of reputational information through gossip can mitigate egoistic behavior by facilitating partner selection, thereby helping to solve the problem of cooperation even in noniterated interactions.”
Robb Willer is a professor of sociology, psychology, and organizational behavior and the director of the Polarization and Social Change Laboratory at Stanford University. He studies the social forces that bring people together, divide them, and shape their political attitudes.
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