Nobody likes a gossip, right? The act of talking about someone “behind their back” is looked down upon as perhaps the lowest form of conversation, slimy and cruel and unfair to the person being gossiped about. This paints a pretty rosy picture of that person, one of victimization rather than ostracism. But a new study from Stanford University suggests gossip can be used for the greater good; it just depends on who’s on the other end.

The Upsides Of Gossip

Consider gossip’s true purpose. When people use facts about others as the currency for conversation, what they’re really doing is clueing them in to important information, at least by their measure. Humans are social creatures through and through. We may not always need to know who is pregnant or how so-and-so’s new haircut is a disaster, but spreading news is a function of self-preservation nearly as old as humanity itself. And when the knowledge we gain can serve a larger, more noble cause, we use it.

“By removing defectors, more cooperative individuals can more freely invest in the public good without fear of exploitation,” the researchers explained. Essentially, the team found that when people needed to cooperate, the easiest and most efficient way of guaranteeing that cooperation was to gossip about the unfair members of the group. Social scientists use the fancy term “reputational information sharing.” It’s accountability, really — an honest broker that helps people make informed choices.

Reputational information sharing also has the added benefit of alerting people to potential threats, and, as the researchers found, protecting “nice people” and encouraging cooperation. “Groups that allow their members to gossip sustain cooperation and deter selfishness better than those that don’t,” said Stanford post-doctoral student Matthew Feinberg in a news release. “And groups do even better if they can gossip and ostracize untrustworthy members. While both of these behaviors can be misused, our findings suggest that they also serve very important functions for groups and society.”

Finding The Selfish

Feinberg and his colleagues set up an experiment separating 216 people into groups, asking them to play games and make financial decisions in the best interest of the group. Researchers often use this exercise as a way to flag the non-contributors — the selfish players who take from everyone but sacrifice nothing. Before they moved on to the next round, subjects had the chance to discuss their teammates’ behavior and decide whether to exclude (ostracize) the laggards the next time around.

Accountability, it turns out, works really well in compelling people to hold up their end of the bargain. When the formerly selfish players learned other people disapproved of their choices, they began to reform. They cooperated. They played fair. The benefits of social inclusion far outweighed the temporal monetary gains, the researchers found. “Exclusion compelled them to conform to the more cooperative behavior of the rest of the group,” they noted.

Gossip serves an extraordinary pro-social function, in this sense. Even though we normally think of gossip as the spread of lurid sexual rumor, psychologists are beginning to realize there are larger motivations at play. We aren’t all scandal seekers, fiending for a juicy story to tell our coworkers or friends. Gossip, or reputational information sharing, lets us keep loved ones safe and generally protect one another. It keeps us honest.

“If you have done something that’s bad for your group, then that’s one of the good functions of rumor and gossip, that your group will find out,” explained psychologist Nicholas DiFonzo, professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology, to Freakonomics Radio.

Checks And Balances

Here gossip can be seen as the great equalizer. We all have the power to spread information about people, be it true or false, so the potential for consequence is high. On the Internet, where anonymous users can throw batteries from the nosebleeds, it’s admittedly lower. But researchers of the present study argue the benefits can outweigh the costs, and even when they can’t, now we know why.

“I think it does speak to the mechanisms that keep people behaving honestly and generously in many settings,” said Robb Willer, an associate professor of sociology at Stanford, adding, “and, where behavior is entirely anonymous, helps explain when they don’t.”

Source: Feinberg M, Willer R, Schultz M. Gossip and Ostracism Promote Cooperation in Groups. Psychological Science. 2014.