Nasty and Noble Notes - Interdependence drives prosocial and proself gossip


Gossip is a ubiquitous phenomenon across human societies (Guala, 2012; Robbins & Karan, 2019). Studies examining why gossip is such a popular activity have proposed vastly different ideas about the motives that drive gossip. On the one hand, gossip can stem from selfish motives (Archer & Coyne, 2005; McAndrew et al., 2007). People could engage in gossip to increase their own relative status at the cost of their rivals. Yet, this stream of literature solely examined situations characterized by conflicting interests, excluding the possibility of prosocial motives. In contrast, gossip can also stem from prosocial motives (Beersma & Van Kleef, 2012; Feinberg et al., 2012). People gossip about norms violators when they can protect someone else from them; gossiping to help. However, these studies solely examined situations characterized by corresponding interests or independence, excluding the possibility of selfish motives. Thus, perspectives on why people gossip not only developed separately, but are also based on different interdependence structures that only allow specific motives. We argue that the expression of proself versus prosocial motives depends on the interdependence between the involved parties. In order to understand what drives gossip and how interdependence shapes this, it is essential to investigate whether gossip can stem from both prosocial and proself motives and when these motives drive gossip. We expect that, compared to when the gossiper’s outcomes are independent of other deciders, gossip for proself motives, evidenced by false gossip misrepresenting the gossip target’s behavior to potentially increase their outcomes, will be more likely when gossiper’s outcomes are interdependent with other deciders than when independent. To test this, we used an adapted sequential prisoner’s dilemma (Clark & Sefton, 2001; Rapoport, 1988) in which two participants (deciders), in turn, choose to cooperate or defect. We added an observer, who observes the first decider’s decision and can gossip to the second decider about this. Participants were randomly assigned to these roles (once assigned, roles remained consistent throughout the experiment) and played 24 rounds (N = 378, Nobservers = 126, nobservations= 3024; ngossip = 2010). If both deciders cooperate (defect), each earns €3 (nothing) and if one cooperates and the other defects, the defector earns €6 euros and the cooperator nothing. We manipulated the interdependence structure by varying what determined observers’ outcomes per 8 rounds; equal to the first decider’s (the gossip target’s) outcomes, equal to the second decider’s (the gossip receiver’s) outcomes, or random and independent. The former two involve conflicting and corresponding interests while the latter involves no interdependence. Analyses were performed in R (R Core Team, 2019) using mixed-effects (binomial) models with REML estimation using the packages ‘lme4’ and ‘lmerTest’ (Bates et al., 2015; Kuznetsova et al., 2017). All models included random intercepts for participants and controlled for round number, gender, and age. Results partially support our hypothesis, showing that false gossip is more likely when participants are linked to first decider compared to randomly determined, but not when linked to the second decider compared to randomly determined. Both effects indicate that false gossip is less likely when the first decider cooperated (i.e., misrepresenting cooperation as defection, less likely to benefit the observer) compared to when the first decider defected (misrepresenting defection as cooperation, more likely to benefit the observer). Counter to expectations, both effects indicate that false gossip is less likely when the first decider cooperated (i.e., misrepresenting cooperation as defection, more likely to benefit the observer) compared to when the first decider defected (misrepresenting defection as cooperation, less likely to benefit the observer). Taken together, People gossip for both prosocial and proself motives and the interdependence among the gossip sender, receiver, and target can determine these motives. As such, we reconcile divergent perspectives on gossip motives and provide a more nuanced unified perspective on mechanisms driving gossip. Furthermore, from a practical perspective, consensus about when and why people engage in gossip can provide practicioners with evidence-based advice about what drives gossip and possible management through the context in which gossip occurs. Solving these pieces of the puzzle of why people gossip is crucial to shed light on ostensibly contradictory streams of literature and provide necessary theoretical advancements that direct future research to fully understand gossip, a characteristic and essential human social behavior.

Terence Daniel Dores Cruz
PhD Candidate

I am broadly interested in human cooperation. Currently, I study gossip’s role in cooperation with regards to reasons for gossip and reactions to gossip.