John Tierney wrote a cute piece for today's Science Times about research on the power of gossip. In a lab-engineered gambling game, either facts or gossip were given to players and it was found that gossip encouraged reciprocity between players - they helped each other out. However when both facts (the record of how the other player had actually played previously) and gossip (negative in one round and positive in the other) were given:
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...but even when a player saw 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.
The experimenters at the Max Planck Institute conclude 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."
I wonder, might it be that it is easier to listen to gossip than it is to interpret behavior? I would like to see if the forms in which this information was given were balanced for the kind of effort we must expend to use them. That is, if I were given the choice of interpreting a page of statistics stating the actual record of the other player versus just hanging out and listening to what others have to say about him. It's hard to convince smart people not to follow stock tips rather than read financial reports and "do their homework," and that's when there is a lot of money on the line. So what are people going to do in a game when a lab has given them 10 Euros to play with?
It's hard work to figure out what motivates others and even after doing it, we could be wrong. It would not be the first time in social psychology that we resort to heuristics (cognitive short cuts). So our choices are - 1) we could not listen, be a social outcast be right, and win some money (everyone who has ever gone to grade school knows how bad it can be to be right), 2) we could not listen, be a social pariah, be wrong, and loose money (unpopular and a loser - the worst choice), 3) we could listen, be a member of the group, be wrong, and loose some money (but we still have our friends and they can cheer us up), or 4) we could listen, be a member of the group, and win (the drinks are on me - the result: love and money). You choose - why do they experimenters think that listening to "gossip" is irrational?