Fear Of Gossip May Curb Selfishness: Study

07/12/2011 03:52 pm ET | Updated Sep 11, 2011
  • Brenna Cammeron The Huffington Post

Gossip is usually seen as a malicious force, blamed for damaging friendships and engendering distrust.

But the knowledge that your decisions might cause people to chit-chat behind your back might also be a good thing, say the researchers behind a new study on the subject.

The study, published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, showed that the likelihood of gossip can actually cause people take pause when making selfish decisions -- and encourage them to make more generous choices in the long run.

Subjects in the study were given 100 tickets for a cash-prize lottery and encouraged to distribute them as they liked, with the option to keep as many as they wanted for themselves.

According to a press release on EurekAlert!, half of the subjects were told their choice to give away or keep the tickets would be kept private, while the other half were told the results would be made public knowledge in the group.

Consistently, the group whose choices were kept private hoarded more tickets for themselves -- perhaps confirming the old adage that "character is what we do when no one else is looking." And the people whose results were public were inevitably more generous with their tickets.

But then researchers Bianca Beersma and Gerben Van Kleef added a unique twist: They told some of the public-knowledge group that their group members were unlikely to talk about their ticket distribution choices, and told others that their peers were highly likely to discuss their decision among others.

When the chance for gossip was low, the public-knowledge group's decision -- whether selfish or generous -- did not change. But when the chance for gossip was high, the public group became the most generous of all.

"Participants realized that a selfish choice could be used by their gossiping group members as a basis to construe a negative social reputation that could have severe consequences for them in the future," Beersma and Van Kleef theorized.

But why did the subjects in the study care so much about what fellow group members, who were otherwise strangers, would have to say about them?

They may have been informed by a mild form of paranoia: According to the study, "participants... may even have considered the possibility that group members could tell negative things about them to people not involved in the study, such as fellow students, friends, and family members."