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Healthy hearsay: The real reason why humans love to gossip

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Secrets, secrets are no fun. Unless you tell everyone!

According to a new research study out of Dartmouth College, gossiping is actually healthy for the human soul. Many attribute gossip as almost a sin; however, new research claims that gossip actually encourages social connection and interaction, plus enables learning about the world through listening to other people’s experiences.

“Gossip is a complex form of communication that is often misunderstood,” said post-doctoral researcher Eshin Jolly in a press release. “It can be a means of social and substantive connection beyond its typical negative connotation.”

Jolly, a researcher for Computational Social Affective Neuroscience Laboratory (COSAN), co-wrote the study with Luke Chang, an assistant professor and director of the COSAN Lab at Dartmouth. 

The pair wanted to figure out why humans spend much of their lives gossiping and exchanging information about each other’s personal lives. Chang and Jolly created an online game where several participants played 10 rounds of the contest together in six-person groups.

‘Gossip is a complex form of communication that is often misunderstood.’

Players were given $10 in each round and could choose to save the money or invest it into a group fund that was multiplied by 150% and divided equally among the participants. The objective was for the game to create some hot tension between players’ cooperative behavior versus selfish money hoarding. Some information was restricted so that contestants could watch the behavior of only a few of the other players from their group.

“Our inspiration was creating a lifelike scenario, in which you’re a member of a community and affected by the actions of all other community members, but most of whom you rarely observe and engage with directly,” Jolly added. Players could also privately talk with another player in the group, allowing them to communicate details about other contestants’ attitudes to their partner.

Players would then relay their willingness to play with each player again after the round was over. The research blatantly showed how gossip is a “rich, multifaceted communication” with many purposes within social groups. Different types of gossip arose depending on the amount of information that was available. When there was little information available to players, more spontaneous conversations between teammates came about. Participants also took second-hand details about their partners as gospel and relied on the info to stay informed.

Researchers said that gossip "can be a means of social and substantive connection beyond its typical negative connotation.”
Researchers said that gossip “can be a means of social and substantive connection beyond its typical negative connotation.”

The research showed that the people who spoke with each other the most formed the closest bonds and felt a huge connection at the end of the game.

“By exchanging information with others, gossip is a way of forming relationships. It involves trust and facilitates a social bond that is reinforced as further communication takes place,” Chang explained.

Gossip should not be diminished to just “baseless trash talk,” he said

“Gossip can be useful because it helps people learn through the experiences of others, while enabling them to become closer to each other in the process,” Jolly added.

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