Research & Insights

Psst! Research Says that Gossip Can Make Us More Generous

Want to get self-centered people to act more charitably?  Threaten to tell their friends how selfish they are. According to research, the fear of damage to a person’s reputation can get people to show a little more kindness to those in need.

The study, conducted by psychologists Junhui Wu, Daniel Balliet, and Paul A. M. Van Lange, involved hundreds of participants playing simulation games. The results, published in a 2015 issue of the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, suggest that gossip and a concern for one’s reputation can encourage prosocial behaviors.

Participants in several experiments were told that they would be playing a series of games with others. The first game was an initial test of generosity. Participants were tasked with distributing 100 lottery tickets between themselves and a game partner. They could be keep all of the tickets for themselves, or share some of them with their partner.

Before deciding how many tickets to give, some of the participants were told that their partner from the first game would tell their partner in an upcoming second game how generous the participant had been. Other participants were told that their partner from the first game would tell someone in an unrelated study how generous the participant had been. A third group of participants were told their partner in the first game would not be able to talk about their generosity to anyone else.

The researchers found that telling participants that their first partner was going to gossip about them to someone they will have to work with in the future made the participants more generous in divvying up the tickets in the first game. When participants believed that their first partner was going to gossip to their second partner, they gave an average of 48 tickets. When the participants believed that their first partner would gossip to strangers or couldn’t gossip at all, they only gave 32 tickets.

Variations of the experiment showed that these generosity effects are stronger for people who tend to be more pro-self rather than pro-social – people who tend to be more selfish.

The results suggest that gossip can be an important motivator of generosity, but only when people know that they will be gossiped about to people they have to interact with in the future.

“[F]rom a societal perspective, it is important to consider ways to motivate those who do not ‘spontaneously’ cooperate,” the researchers write. “Reputation can be such a mechanism to enhance cooperation among people who only care about their own outcome.”

Social Psychological and Personality Science 

Researchers:
Junhui Wu, Daniel Balliet, and Paul A. M. Van Lange, VU University Amsterdam, Amsterdam, the Netherlands

Posted: November 4, 2015
Tagged as: