The conventional wisdom has it that gossip is bad. After all, we are seriously enlightened deep thinkers. We want to talk about ideas and principles. Gossip is beneath our great intellectual capacity.
The conventional wisdom also has it that ostracism, as in shunning and shaming people, is bad. Since shame feels bad, it must be bad.
Of course, you know better than to trust the conventional wisdom. Now, a psychologist and a sociologist from Stanford bring us a more accurate and intelligent assessment.
The London Telegraph reports:
In contrast to the conventional belief that gossip and social exclusion are malicious and should be avoided, researchers found sharing “reputational information” could have a positive effect on society.
Gossip can help social groups to reform bullies, encourages co-operation and stops “nice people” being exploited, according to the study, published in the journal Psychological Science.
Dr Matthew Feinberg, a researcher at Stanford University in the United State who co-wrote the study, said: “Groups that allow their members to gossip sustain co-operation and deter selfishness better than those that don’t.
“And groups do even better if they can gossip and ostracise untrustworthy members.
“While both of these behaviours can be misused, our findings suggest that they also serve very important functions for groups and society.”
No one gossips about ideas. We gossip about other people. In so doing, we exchange what the authors call “reputational information.”
We offer each other information about the character of other people. When we gossip we are telling each other who is more likely to work well with others and to respect others. Perhaps more pertinently, we are telling each other who is self-involved, self-absorbed and selfish.
When people discover that someone is in it for himself and that he shows no group loyalty or concern for other people, we conclude that he is more likely to exploit others and we exclude him from our group. Like it or not, it's the rational thing to do.
There is nothing wrong with judging someone by the "content of his character."
The Telegraph continues:
The researchers found that when people learn about the behaviour of others through gossip, they use the information to ally themselves with those deemed co-operative.
People who have behaved selfishly can then be excluded from group activities based on the gossip.
This benefits the whole group as the more selfish types are no longer able to exploit more co-operative people for their own gains.
The researchers suggest that the threat or the reality of social exclusion motivates people to overcome what we may call their narcissism. It’s worth emphasizing the point, as I have done on many other occasions, that ostracism or the threat of same can be therapeutic.
The Stanford researchers discovered this:
When people deemed selfish suffer social exclusion they often learn from the experience and reform their behaviour by co-operating more in future group settings, the team found.
As is well known to those who participate in chat boards or who leave comments on blogs, when people can hide behind the mask of anonymity, they tend to indulge in anti-social behaviors:
In contrast anonymous groups, such as many internet message boards, lack accountability allowing anti-social behaviour to thrive.
When people have names, they are putting their own reputations at risk, and thus are less likely to use gossip to lie and slander. Anonymity is not a normal or natural condition; it is an artificial contrivance that produces bad behavior.