Causes and Consequences of Gossipers’ Lies

Peters, K. (University of Queensland), Fonseca, M. (University of Exeter)

Within the body of cultural knowledge there are ample warnings about the dangers of attending to gossip. Such warnings are also present in the academic literature, where it is assumed that people will share inaccurate gossip. However, this assumption, if true, presents a challenge to the growing body of work that argues that because gossip is a ready source of accurate reputational information it is able to bolster overall levels of cooperation. In this study, we test this inaccuracy assumption by examining the frequency and form of spontaneous lies shared between gossiping members of networks playing a series of one-shot trust games. We manipulate whether gossipers are or are not competing with each other. We show that lies make up a sizeable minority of messages, and that they are twice as frequent under gossiper competition. However, this has no discernible effect on trust levels. We attribute this to two factors. First, some lies are welfare enhancing, and may serve reputational functions more effectively than truth does. Second, targets of gossip are insensitive to the existence of lies and are more trustworthy than they need to be. These findings suggest that lies may help gossip to serve reputational functions.

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