Is gossip bad for you? New study finds health benefits

CAROUSEL: Gossiping girls, talking, women, gossip
IStockPhoto
generic gossip, whisper
istockphoto

(CBS) Do you gossip? Even if the answer is yes, you're not likely to admit it. Gossip is generally frowned upon for its potential to spread harmful rumors or labeled as idle chatter. But a new study suggests gossip might be good for your social and psychological health.

"Gossip gets a bad rap, but we're finding evidence that it plays a critical role in the maintenance of social order," said UC Berkeley social psychologist Robb Willer, coauthor of the study published in this month's online issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

The study focused on "prosocial" gossip, which "has the function of warning others about untrustworthy or dishonest people," Willer said in a written statement.

For the study, researchers conducted four experiments. First, they hooked 51 volunteers up to heart rate monitors. The volunteers observed two people playing a game in which the players' generosity toward each other was measured by how many dollars or points they shared. When one player did not play by the rules and hoarded points, the observers' heart rates increased, and most seized the opportunity to slip a "gossip note" to warn new players.

"Passing on the gossip note ameliorated their negative feelings and tempered their frustration," Willer said. "Gossiping made them feel better."

The second experiment had 111 participants fill out a questionnaire about their levels of altruism and cooperativeness. When they then observed the scores in relation to the economic trust game and saw that one player had cheated, observers reported feelings of frustration - and then experiencing relief once they were given a chance to pass on a gossip note.

Did some feel more inclined to gossip than others? According to Matthew Feinberg, a UC Berkeley social psychologist and lead study author, "the higher participants scored on being altruistic, the more likely they were to experience negative emotions after witnessing the selfish behavior and the more likely they were to engage in the gossip."

Participants in the third experiment were asked to sacrifice money they had received to be in the study if they wanted to send a gossip note. And a large majority of observers agreed to take the financial hit.

"People paid money to gossip even when they couldn't affect the selfish person's outcome," Feinberg said.

For the final experiment, 300 participants from around the country were recruited via Craigslist to play several rounds of the economic trust game online. They played using raffle tickets that would be entered in a drawing for a $50 cash prize - added incentive to win. But this time, some players were told that the observers during a break could pass a gossip note to players in the next round. What happened? The threat of being gossiped about caused virtually all the players to act more generously - especially those who had scored low on an altruism questionnaire taken prior to the game.

What's the take-home message from these four experiments? "When we observe someone behave in an immoral way, we get frustrated," Willer said. "But being able to communicate this information to others who could be helped makes us feel better."

Still, Dr. Laura Davies, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco, told the San Francisco Chronicle that the study focused on a specific kind of gossip that many people don't consider gossip.

What do you think? Can gossip help in addition to harm?