In today's New York Times, John Tierney writes that researchers believe "gossip was the great evolutionary leap that enabled human apes to live peacefully in large groups, develop moral codes, build civilizations and, eventually, sell supermarket tabloids." Tierney points to a recent paper published by evolutionary biologists who set out to test the power of gossip. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology and the University of Vienna gave the same number of Euros to 126 students and had them play a game: On each turn, the players were paired off, and one of them was offered a chance to give Euros to the other. If the player agreed, the researchers gave him/her some bonus Euros. If the first player refused to give the money, he'd save his Euros, but if others found out he was a tightwad, they might later withhold cash from him.
As the game progressed, with the players changing partners frequently and alternating between the donor and recipient roles, the players were given information about their partners' past decisions.
Sometimes the donor was shown gossip about the partner from another player. When the partner was paid a compliment like "spendabler spieler!" — generous player! — the donor was more likely to give money. But the donor turned stingy when he saw gossip like "übler geizkragen" — nasty miser.
In other words, most people passed on positive gossip and used it for the common good: they rewarded cooperative behavior, even when they themselves weren't directly affected. In the experiment, the students were generous most of the time, and on average ended up with twice as much money as they had at the beginning of the game. Sounds great, right? What a wonderful world we live in! Well here's what happened next:
In two rounds of the game, each donor was given both hard facts and gossip: A record of how his partner had behaved previously, as well as either positive gossip or negative gossip. And guess what? Gossip made a difference.
On average, cooperation increased by about 20 percent if the gossip was good, and fell by 20 percent if the gossip was negative. Now, you might think the gossip mattered just in borderline cases — when the partner had a mixed record of generosity, and the donor welcomed outside guidance in making a tough decision. But the gossip had an impact in other situations, too. Even when a player saw that his partner had a record of consistent meanness, he could be swayed by positive gossip to reward the partner anyway. Or withhold help from a perfectly nice partner just on the basis of malicious buzz.
These results were surprising to Ralf D. Sommerfeld of the Max Planck Institute. "If you know you already have the full information about someone," he said, "rationally you shouldn't care so much what someone else says." Except we do. Sommerfeld suspects "we are just more adapted to listen to other information than to observe people, because most of the time we're not able to observe how other people are behaving. Thus we might believe we have missed something." And we hate to miss anything. You heard about Britney, right?
Facts Prove No Match for Gossip, It Seems [NY Times]