Gossip more powerful than truth, researchers say

LONDON Mon Oct 15, 2007 5:01pm EDT

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LONDON (Reuters) - Gossip is more powerful than truth, a study showed on Monday, suggesting people believe what they hear through the grapevine even if they have evidence to the contrary.

Researchers, testing students using a computer game, also found gossip played an important role when people make decisions, said Ralf Sommerfeld, an evolutionary biologist at the Max Planck Institute in Germany, who led the study.

"We show that gossip has a strong influence... even when participants have access to the original information as well as gossip about the same information," the researchers wrote in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"Thus, it is evident that gossip has a strong manipulative potential."

In the study, the researchers gave the students money and allowed them to give it to others in a series of rounds. The students also wrote notes about how others played the game that everyone could review.

Students tended to give less money to people described as "nasty misers" or "scrooges" and more to those depicted as "generous players" or "social players", Sommerfeld said.

"People only saw the gossip, not the past decisions," he said in a telephone interview. "People really reacted on it."

The researchers then took the game a step further and showed the students the actual decisions people had made. But they also supplied false gossip that contradicted that evidence.

In these cases, the students based their decisions to award money on the gossip, rather than the hard evidence, showing such information is a powerful tool, Sommerfeld said.

"Rationally if you know what the people did, you should care, but they still listened to what others said," he said.

"They even reacted on it if they knew better."

Researchers have long used similar games to study how people cooperate and the impact of gossip in groups. Scientists define gossip as social information spread about a person who is not present, Sommerfeld said.

In evolutionary terms, gossip can be an important tool for people to acquire information about others' reputations or navigate through social networks at work and in their everyday lives, the study said.

One example could be using gossip to learn that a potential mate had cheated on others, something which could make that person an undesirable match, Sommerfeld said.

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