Is Gossip Good for Society?

A new study indicates that gossip is actually good for society because it increases cooperation and helps reform bullies. The study, conducted by Stanford University, separated participants into two cooperative groups. In one group, participants were allowed to confer about the performance of each member of their group for each stage of cooperative interaction. In the other group, they were not allowed to confer. One of the researchers involved reports:

Groups that allow their members to gossip sustain co-operation and deter selfishness better than those that don’t. And groups do even better if they can gossip and ostracise untrustworthy members. While both of these behaviours can be misused, our findings suggest that they also serve very important functions for groups and society.

I find their definition of “gossip” to be a little fudged. Gossip has a connotation of maliciousness or back-biting. Gossip gratifies our desires to hear about other people’s misfortune. What these researchers were talking about amounts to little more than “reporting,” “whistleblowing” or “peer/subordinate review.”

Sites like Yelp have been capitalizing on this for years. When businesses know that their “bad behavior” can be reported on, and that these reports (or “gossip” as these researchers would call it) can negatively affect their bottom line, they give better service. Even the possibility of a bad report helps to deter bad behavior. For instance, filming police officers has a significant cooling effect on police brutality. This boils down to video gossip, maybe?

But I have a problem with defining gossip the way these researchers have. And I think their conclusions are misleading and unhelpful. Is Us magazine as useful as Yelp for society? Certainly not. Gossip properly defined is not good for society. Responsible reporting of misbehavior, corruption, and abuse has its place, of course. And it is not helpful for civil governments or businesses to punish or unduly restrain whistleblowers. But whistleblowing and gossip are not the same thing.