Gossip, which can be hurtful and mean, has for once been seen as a way of making sure people will share and cooperate.
Researchers Bianca Beersma and Gerben Van Kleef of the University of Amsterdam set out to test whether the threat of gossip could suppress selfish behaviour.
They brought people into the lab and convinced them that they were part of a group that would interact first through computers and then face-to-face.
People were told they had been randomly chosen to distribute 100 tickets for a cash-prize lottery.
With the task, people could be generous and distribute the tickets to group members, or they could be selfish, and keep a large share of the tickets for themselves.
Beersma and Van Kleef wanted to know just how generous people would be, and so they had people actually dole out the tickets, and compared how selfish or generous people would be when they faced the prospect of their decisions being the topic of gossip.
In every condition, people acted selfishly to some degree, most people kept more than an equal share for themselves. But when their actions were public and the chance for gossip was high, people became substantially less selfish.
When people knew that their selfishness would be on display, and very likely to be talked about, they acted most generously to others.
“When the threat of gossip exists, group members can expect that they will be talked about if they decide to take a free ride,” wrote the authors.