The Truth about Gossip and Reputation

From the beginning of personality psychology as an academic discipline in the 1930s, the conventional wisdom has maintained that reputation is an epiphenomenon of no real psychological significance or interest. Instead, according to Gordon Allport, personality psychology concerns the factors that make each person distinctive and unique. This was a mistake for two reasons: (1) it is impossible to generalize from uniqueness; and (2) reputation is easy to study and is a powerful predictor of behavior.

Another suspect topic is gossip. Conventional wisdom has maintained that gossip is little more than character assassination, and is something that right minded people will avoid. In the 1970s researchers began studying normal conversations and discovered that when real people (as opposed to academic psychologists) talk, they mostly (about 70% of the time) engage in gossip—they talk about other people.

That which reputation and gossip have in common is language. Robin Dunbar, a British anthropologist, is credited with the view that language evolved as a mechanism to organize and smooth social interaction. Dunbar thinks conversation among humans takes the place of social grooming in chimpanzees (our nearest relative); he thinks conversation serves to create social bonds.

I have argued for a long time that much conversation is actually about gossip and gossip is mostly about coming to a common agreement about another person’s reputation—hence the link between gossip and reputation. Knowing another person’s reputation is quite helpful in deciding how to deal with that person in future interactions. Gossip tells us who we can trust; conversely, the prospects of acquiring a bad reputation serves to control people’s otherwise selfish tendencies—gossip functions as a mechanism of social control.

Ralf Summerfield and colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology published a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that is an interesting contribution to this line of thinking. They used the standard game theoretical paradigm in which two people interact, and each has the option of competing or cooperating. If both cooperate, both win; if one competes while the other cooperates, the selfish person wins even bigger. In this study, participants were provided information regarding the other person’s reputation as either selfish or cooperative. As expected, they found that if a person expected to interact with someone with a reputation for selfishness, he/she would behave selfishly, but if a person expected to interact with someone with a reputation for cooperation, he/she would tend to cooperate.

The real news in the study, however, concerned a particular wrinkle. In some cases they would provide the participants with both data regarding other person’s performance and a description that person’s reputation. Participants invariably believed the gossip rather than the data. As Sommerfeld noted: “It could be 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 behave. Thus we might believe we have missed something.”

There are two points about this that are worth remembering. First, people believe gossip over actual data regarding a person’s performance. And second, smart people will try to keep their reputations in good shape.

— Dr. Robert Hogan