The general notion about gossip and social exclusion in groups is that they are always malicious, undermining trust and morale.
But a new study has suggested that sharing this kind of "reputational information" could have benefits for society.
Robb Willer, an associate professor of sociology at Stanford University, explored the nature of gossip and ostracism in collaboration with co-authors Matthew Feinberg, a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford, and Michael Schultz from the University of California-Berkeley.
Their research shows that gossip and ostracism can have positive effects, serving as tools by which groups reform bullies, thwart exploitation of "nice people," and encourage cooperation.
"Groups that allow their members to gossip sustain cooperation and deter selfishness better than those that don't. And groups do even better if they can gossip and ostracize untrustworthy members. While both of these behaviors can be misused, our findings suggest that they also serve very important functions for groups and society," Feinberg said.
The researchers found that when people learn about the behavior of others through gossip, they use this information to align with those deemed cooperative. hose who have behaved selfishly can then be excluded from group activities based on the prevailing gossip. This serves the group's greater good, for selfish types are known to exploit more cooperative people for their own gains.
The study was published in the journal Psychological Science.