What starts as smoke around the campfire can sometimes turn into talk around the water cooler. It’s no secret that most people like to gossip, sometimes with damaging social consequences for the person(s) in question. According to a new study, not only are people highly influenced by gossip, they do so even when the information is explicitly identified as questionable or untrustworthy.
I heart it on the grapevine
During two experiments involving 56 participants, psychologists at Humboldt University in Berlin tested how people responded to positive or negative information about strangers. Each participant was presented with photographs of unfamiliar faces and received negative information about that person, which was either presented as a fact (e.g. “He bullied his apprentice”) or as questionable gossip (e.g. “He allegedly bullied his apprentice”).
As the participants made their value judgments about the gossiped individuals, an electroencephalogram (EEG) recorded their brain activity. The researchers focused on two markers called the Late Positive Potential and the Early Posterior Negativity, which are associated with emotional processing.
The results suggest that people tend to respond emotionally when judging other people, even when this judgment is based on unreliable evidence. The second experiment replicated these findings and extended them to positive information. The participants were not instructed in any way to suppress the emotional content of the information they had been exposed to or to consciously consider the effects that rumors might have. Instead, they were all free to make value judgments, as is often the case in day-to-day life.
“Our findings demonstrate a tendency for strong emotional evaluations and person judgments even when they are knowingly based on unclear evidence,” the authors concluded in the study published in the journal Emotion.
Qualifiers and phrases such as ‘allegedly’, ‘apparently’ or ‘suspected of’ are widely used by the media during coverage of other people to signal uncertainty of information about these persons. The new findings, however, show that marking information as untrustworthy does little to prevent prejudice or defamation. This explains why even ‘soft’ fake news can be just as bad as blatant lies.
The study’s limitations include a small sample size and the fact that the gossiped individuals were all strangers. Would the conclusion change if the rumors were about an acquaintance? That would be an interesting investigation for another time. Yes, you might argue that how people respond to gossip is rather common sense, as reproachable as prejudice may be. But that’s the point of science, after all — separating fact from opinion.