We tend to think of gossip as negative behavior when, for example, we talk about someone or share information behind the back of another person that may show them a bad image. But it really isn't, McAndrew says. Talking behind other people's backs may not always be pleasant, but it can sometimes help promote cooperation and self-improvement. If people accept you because you have interesting news, it's not a true acceptance of you, but rather, an acceptance of what you say.
However, a study published in late October in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin posits that people also see benefits from gossip. And as the news almost inevitably returns to the source of such gossip, it can “serve to keep people under control, morally speaking,” Robbins adds. The data showed that almost all of the study participants gossiped (only 34 of the 467 didn't gossip at all). And his team has discovered that gossip is also one of the forces that promote cooperation between groups.
A good gossiper is someone to whom people trust information and someone who uses that information in a responsible manner. According to Dunbar's work, gossip gives humans the ability to disseminate valuable information on very large social networks. Some scholars view gossip as evidence of cultural learning, as it offers teaching moments and providing people with examples of what is socially acceptable and what is not. Most gossip was not coded as positive or negative; most of the gossip recorded in this study (75 percent) was neutral.
In a couple of studies in which participants played trust-based investment games, Feinberg and his fellow researchers observed that when someone did something selfish in a game, people were highly motivated to give it away to other participants, even at a personal cost to them. Nobody likes to live in fear of what people might say behind their backs, hence the understandably bad reputation of gossip. In fact, negative gossip made people feel better about themselves, but it also made them more afraid that they might gossip about them, too.