Have you ever wondered if hearing gossip about someone shapes your behaviour towards her/him? Let’s be clear from the start that by gossip we mean negative information. Have you ever tried to shape others’ opinions and behaviour towards a person by sharing gossip about that person with them? And how do you react to realising that gossip about you has been going around? How do you cope with knowing that your friends and acquaintances have been sharing negative information about you?
Gossip has two sides. On the one hand, it gives us an opportunity to share valuable information with others to help them make better social decisions, for example, to avoid an annoying person at a party or to refuse lending money to an untrustworthy friend. On the other hand, it may be a threat when it is about us. Gossip shapes others’ views of us without giving us any opportunity to defend or explain ourselves. Putting these together, one may say that gossip is like police: although it is a force for good, no one likes to be personally involved with it. Like police, gossip makes sure that we all behave nicely to each other. Although this sounds like a good idea, it is, still, just an idea. Is there empirical evidence to support it? To answer this question, Fienberg, Willer, and Schultz (see the paper here) tested if gossip and the possibility to exclude people based on gossip about them could lead to a higher level of cooperation among the remaining people. In their experiments, they used three Public Goods Games to test this.
To see what a public good is, think about an office where employees decide to use their own money to buy a glass board to write their plans for meetings. Such board would be useful for everyone. So they set up a common pot for this idea and everyone is asked to participate so that the board can be ready for the next month. By contributing to the collective fund, everyone will use this board to present their programs, so everybody benefits.
This benefit has two important characteristics. First, it is non-excludable: none of the staff can exclude the others from writing their plans on the thinking board or drawing mind maps. Second, it is non-rivalries: no one can use the board more than the other employees.
If you look around yourself carefully, you see that there are many other examples of public goods around you. The streets of the city where you live, the country’s national defence force, and Wikipedia, which is a freely accessible online encyclopaedia edited by many volunteers are all examples of public goods.
Contributing money to provide such external aid is, according to economists, a public good game (PGG). Employees contribute some amount to the shared pot and the total sum is spent on something they can all use. All staff (including those who have paid the fee as well as those who have not) enjoy the benefit. The reason why it is called a game is to indicate that the choice to pay or not is free and taken by each employee themselves.
In the psychology laboratory, to examine the behaviour of individuals in relation to public goods, people will be given tokens that they can secretly contribute as much as they want to a public fund. The more they contribute, the more profit the whole group makes because the collected money is multiplied by 2 and divided among all. They can also keep their tokens. From an individual’s selfish perspective, the best case scenario happens when a person does not contribute anything but everybody else does. This way, the person who did not contribute gets to keep their money AND receive the benefit from everyone else’ contribution.
In the study by Fienberg, Willer, and Schultz, during the basic game, people were asked to contribute as much as they wished to the group fund according to the 10 point token the experimenters had intended at the beginning of each round for each person. Every point was worth 2.5 cents. The whole group endowment was then doubled and distributed equally to each group member. After each round participants were informed about how much others donated and how much they earned. People were then assigned to the new group and the process was repeated. In the gossip game, after people learned about their group partners, they could send a gossip note to another participant in a new group about one of the partners they had played with. And in the gossip with ostracism game, after notes were received, people could anonymously vote for a player to be excluded from the game. In a group of 4, if a participant had 2 or more exclusion votes, the other 3 people played without him and their whole shared points were multiplied by 1.5 and distributed equally between 3 remaining players.
The results showed that the possibility of gossip, in and of itself, increased people’s propensity to cooperate with others because people knew that negative information could also spread about them. But this effect did not last for the long term as they wanted to avoid others taking advantage of them. So their cooperation was diminished over time. On the other hand, the highest levels of contribution were in the game of gossip with ostracism. People considered pro-sociality more than all other case because they wanted to avoid exclusion. So their contribution increased across the rounds in gossip with ostracism. Also by the exclusion of a selfish partner, cooperating members of the group could safely work together without being exploited by free riders.
Finally, it seems that the way we interact with others can be a function of what they know about us or what we know about them, and these opinions can be easily changed by someone else’s efforts. Especially when the person in question is trusted and considered a fellow member. So, according to the bond between people who have known and chosen each other, cooperation can be maximized in a situation like the one discussed.