October 16, 2007
Facts Prove No Match for Gossip, It Seems
By JOHN TIERNEY
Until now, I was firmly pro-gossip. I welcomed the theory that gossip was the reason language developed. I cheered on researchers who believed gossip was the great evolutionary leap that enabled human apes to live peacefully in large groups, develop moral codes, build civilizations and, eventually, sell supermarket tabloids.
But now I wonder if we’ve leaped too far, and it’s not because I’ve been watching “Gossip Girl.” In a paper on gossip published yesterday, evolutionary biologists in Germany and Austria have identified a vulnerability that might be called the Chico Marx Paradox, for reasons that will be clear once you hear about this experiment.
The researchers set out to test the power of gossip, which has been exalted by theorists in recent decades. Language, according to the anthropologist Robin Dunbar, evolved because gossip is a more efficient version of the “social grooming” essential for animals to live in groups.
Apes and other creatures solidify their social bonds by cleaning and stroking one another, but the size of the group is limited because there’s not enough time in the day to groom a large number of animals.
Speech enabled humans to bond with lots of people while going about their hunting and gathering. Instead of spending hours untangling hair, they could bond with friendly conversation (“Your hair looks so unmatted today!”) or by picking apart someone else’s behavior (“Yeah, he was supposed to share the wildebeest, but I heard he kept both haunches”).
Gossip also told people whom to trust, and the prospect of a bad reputation discouraged them from acting selfishly, so large groups could peacefully cooperate. At least, that was the theory: gossip promoted the “indirect reciprocity” that made human society possible.
To test it, researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology and the University of Vienna gave 10 Euros apiece to 126 students and had them play a game that put them in a dilemma. On each turn, the players would be paired off, and one of them was offered a chance to give 1.25 Euros to the other. If he agreed, the researchers added a bonus of .75 Euro so that the recipient ended up gaining 2 Euros.
If the first player refused to give the money, he’d save 1.25 Euros, but if others found out about his miserliness they might later withhold money from him. As the game progressed, with the players changing partners frequently and alternating between the donor and recipient roles, the players were given information about their partners’ past decisions.
Sometimes the donor was shown a record of what the partner had done previously while playing the donor role. The more generous this partner had earlier been toward other players, the more likely the donor was to give him something.
Sometimes the donor was shown gossip about the partner from another player. When the partner was paid a compliment like “spendabler spieler!” — generous player! — the donor was more likely to give money. But the donor turned stingy when he saw gossip like “übler geizkragen” — nasty miser.
So far, so good. As predicted, gossip promoted indirect reciprocity. The research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, showed that most people passed on accurate gossip and used it for the common good. They rewarded cooperative behavior even when they themselves weren’t directly affected by the behavior.
If a cooperation game like this was played without consequences for the players’ reputations — as has been done in other experiments — most players would be miserly, and cooperation would collapse. In this experiment they were generous most of the time, and on average ended up with twice as much money as they had at the beginning of the game.
But here’s the disconcerting news from the experiment. In a couple of rounds, each donor was given both hard facts and gossip. He was given a record of how his partner had behaved previously as well as some gossip — positive gossip in one round, negative in another.
The donor was told that the source of the gossip didn’t have any extra information beyond what the donor could already see for himself. Yet the gossip, whether positive or negative, still had a big influence on the donors’ decisions, and it didn’t even matter if the source of the gossip had a good reputation himself. On average, cooperation increased by about 20 percent if the gossip was good, and fell by 20 percent if the gossip was negative.
Now, you might think the gossip mattered just in borderline cases — when the partner had a mixed record of generosity, and the donor welcomed outside guidance in making a tough decision. But the gossip had an impact in other situations, too. Even when a player saw that his partner had a record of consistent meanness, he could be swayed by positive gossip to reward the partner anyway. Or withhold help from a perfectly nice partner just on the basis of malicious buzz.
This result may come as no shock to fans of “Gossip Girl,” or to publicists trying to plant items in Page Six about the charitable works of despicable clients. But it seemed surprising to the researchers, according to the lead author, Ralf D. Sommerfeld of the Max Planck Institute.
“If you know you already have the full information about someone,” he said, “rationally you shouldn’t care so much what someone else says.”
So why do we? “It could be,” he suggested, “that we are just more adapted to listen to other information than to observe people, because most of the time we’re not able to observe how other people are behaving. Thus we might believe we have missed something.”
This makes a certain sense, but I still wonder if evolution has taken a Chico Marxist turn here. In “Duck Soup,” Chico tries to pass himself off as Groucho’s character, complete with moustache and cigar, but encounters a skeptical Margaret Dumont, who protests that she just saw Groucho leave the room.
“Well, who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?” Chico asks.
Now, at last, we know the answer.