The Wisdom of Gossip: A chat with Robb Willer

Photo by Matt Griffin via FlickrOh. Em. Gee. I got here way early today, and I saw Lisa putting the community snack bars in her Prada bag. Like, she took ALL the snack bars. And I was really surprised, ‘cause Lisa already had breakfast, and, like, who takes the last snack bar? So, anyway, you’d better grab your snack bar before she comes in tomorrow.

Recent research suggests gossip can be good for the group -- if it’s the right kind.

Robb Willer, professor of sociology, psychology, and organizational behavior at Stanford talked with us about what kind of gossip is really ‘good.’ (Audio of the interview will be posted soon!)

“In general, gossip gets a bad rap. People think of gossip as a way to slander other people, they think of it as unreliable information.” But, this is only one kind of gossip. “Often, people pass on negative information about people who have behaved in an antisocial, immoral, or exploitative way. They pass this on to new people with the intention of, essentially, protecting those people.”

In a nutshell, gossip that conveys information about someone’s selfish or immoral behavior can help others be more vigilant in future encounters with them.

But what motivates this beneficial gossip? Robb and his team actually monitored the heart rate of their participants and found that people became agitated when they saw someone acting selfishly. The more frustrated they were, the more motivated they were to warn others about the selfish behavior


It hurts to watch!

Some people tend to be more prosocially motivated, in general, than others. These people are more chronically generous and tend to care a lot about other people. When they saw selfish behavior being exhibited, these prosocially-oriented people experienced a more extreme negative emotion than the average participant. In turn, they were more motived to prosocially gossip about the behavior, and also felt even better than the average person once they passed on the knowledge. 


Positive potential tattletaling

It turns out that, had Lisa known I might send news of her snack-bar-snatching habits down the grapevine, she probably wouldn’t have taken so many. People tend to be pretty good when they think they might be gossiped about.

Just as some people are more prosocial than average, there are people who are less prosocial than average, who tend to be more selfish, in general. These chronically selfish folks were more affected by knowing that they could be gossiped about, acting even more generous and prosocial than the average person.

This effect, that gossip motivates better behavior is part of the larger story Robb and his colleagues are finding about how gossip helps maintain cooperation and community. “If people have no means of distributing reputational information about one another, there’s little to deter bad behavior from happening. There’s little reason why you wouldn’t just engage in antisocial, exploitative behavior against others, if you have those sorts of motivations. However, if there’s some means for policing bad behavior, then that can reform the egoistic behavior of a more selfish individual, essentially lifting their levels of cooperation and prosociality to levels comparable with those with sincere prosocial motivation.” 

So, gossip can actually be a tool in facilitating cooperation. The snack bar example is a little silly and small, but these findings have larger implications. Robb mentioned previous research showing that people are more likely to vote if they think their neighbors will find out whether or not they did. He also suggested that prosocial gossip might apply to projects like arranging soup kitchens with people who live in similar areas or with similar interests. If you care what those people think of you, you’ll be more likely to continue helping. He’s also working on another study, examining whether the reputation of a community’s carbon footprint can spur action to lower it.  

Reputation matters to most people, and gossip is one way reputation is created. Gossip Wisely.


Robb Willer is an Associate Professor in the Departments of Sociology, Psychology (by courtesy), and the Graduate School of Business (by courtesy) at Stanford University. His work focuses on morality, status, politics, and masculinity. Robb’s research has appeared in such journals as American Sociological ReviewAmerican Journal of SociologyAnnual Review of Sociology, Administrative Science QuarterlyJournal of Personality and Social Psychology, Psychological Science, Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, and Social Networks


Genevieve Douglass is a composer and researcher at WOOPAAH. She also consults in NYC on motivation, burnout, and vitality, writes about various psychological phenomena, and enjoys frollicking in the park with her two tan dogs and pale husband.