Monday, November 05, 2007

The Manipulative Potential of Gossip

No doubt everyone is guilty of doing it- gossiping. But why is gossip such a prevalent part of our social behaviour? Many distinct and diverse functions have been proposed- gossip can be an effective mechanism for social bonding, social control, it can be self-serving, etc. The latest issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has an interesting piece on gossip. Here is the abstract:

"Gossip as an alternative for direct observation in games of indirect reciprocity"
By Ralf D. Sommerfeld et. al.

Communication about social topics is abundant in human societies, and many functions have been attributed to such gossiping. One of these proposed functions is the management of reputations. Reputation by itself has been shown to have a strong influence on cooperation dynamics in games of indirect reciprocity, and this notion helps to explain the observed high level of cooperation in humans. Here we designed a game to test a widespread assumption that gossip functions as a vector for the transmission of social information. This empirical study (with 14 groups of nine students each) focuses on the composition of gossip, information transfer by gossip, and the behavior based on gossip information. We show that gossip has a strong influence on the resulting behavior even when participants have access to the original information (i.e., direct observation) as well as gossip about the same information. Thus, it is evident that gossip has a strong manipulative potential. Furthermore, gossip about cooperative individuals is more positive than gossip about uncooperative individuals, gossip comments transmit social information successfully, and cooperation levels are higher when people encounter positive compared with negative gossip.