Dec. 27, 2012 at 2:19 PM ET
Gossip usually gets a bad rap, but a new study suggests it can do some good: It might discourage some of us from slacking off.
The study reveals that the good form of gossip can protect a group from individuals looking for a free ride, which can be a good thing for co-workers on a project team, students in a study group, or parents serving on a school committee, to name a few.
We tend to think of gossip as the nasty rumors spread behind someone's back or what busybodies blabber about for lack of anything better to say. But it can be more than that, says study author Bianca Beersma, PhD, an associate professor in the department of work and organizational psychology at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands. "Gossip is not merely a trivial activity, nor is it always detrimental to group functioning," says Beersma says. "It can serve neutral and even positive functions for groups."
In one experiment, published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 221 college students completed a questionnaire rating people's main motives for gossiping.
They found that exchanging and validating information was the most important reason to instigate gossip. Students also rated its negative influence as the least important reason to gossip, and its social enjoyment and group protection ranked second and third, respectively.
As a result, Beersma suggests that malicious gossip may be a relatively infrequent type, but its consequences may be disproportionately large -- such as when gossip is part of bullying someone for a long period of time.
In another experiment, the same college students read a situation describing an employee who was not doing their fair share at work. Study participants were then told to imagine they ran into a friend or a co-worker at a bus stop after leaving their job and asked whether they would gossip about the annoying slacker at work.
Researchers found people were more likely to gossip about a co-worker who was slacking off to another colleague, and the main reason was to protect other group members from this norm-violating behavior.
For example, it's always tempting for some individuals to slack off in a group project, contribute little, and let others do the work. But the study found that one of the motives to gossip was to warn other group members about someone who was looking for a free ride who could hurt the rest of the group's overall performance.
"Our study clearly shows that there is more to gossip than just the malicious aspect," says Beersma. "We are in need of a more nuanced view of gossip to enable organizations to benefit from its positive aspects."
But when it comes to workplace gossip, Beersma says the biggest challenge for an organization and its employees is to distinguish between positive, group-protecting gossip and the malicious, self-interested kind.