The study, by researchers at the Max-Planck-Institute for Evolutionary Biology in Plon, Germany, has found that people are more influenced by gossip about others, even if they know that the rumours are untrue and baseless.
humans are used to basing their decisions on gossip, rumors or other spoken information," he added.
For the study, Sommerfeld, a Ph.D. student at the institute and colleagues turned to a computer-based game. Groups of nine students sat with laptops at a table separated by partitions so their decisions remained anonymous. In each round, the players had to decide whether to give a set amount of money to an assigned, but still anonymous, partner within the group.
When one player decides to give money to another, the two have cooperated. As the game continued, players switched partners. They also received additional information, as the researchers told the players what decisions their new partners had made in the past and what other players wrote about their partners.
Examples of their judgments include "generous player" and "nasty miser." In later rounds, researchers also introduced gossip statements about the players.
The team found that players who read a positive comment about another individual, having no knowledge of that person's past generosity record, were more likely to hand over cash to that individual. The opposite was true for negative gossip, where players held tight to their money.
They also found that when players were given the record of their partner's past decisions and the comments from other players, or from the researchers writing as players, they paid more attention to the gossip.
"If people would act rationally, they would only base their decisions on what they really see because they know exactly the past behavior of these people. But they were still influenced by this gossip," Sommerfeld said.
The study is published this week online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences