Lots of gossip is good for society and helps people to trust each other and to be more charitable, according to a study published today.
Earlier work by game theorists has shown that the reason that, unlike so many other creatures, humans help strangers and unrelated people is down to reputation.
Reputation is important for the evolution of human cooperation, through a process called "indirect reciprocity", summed up by 'I help you and somebody else helps me'.
Now the extent to which we rely on tittle tattle to build reputation has been studied by one of the leading figures in the field, Prof Manfred Milinksi, working with Drs Ralf Sommerfeld, and Hans-Jurgen Krambeck in the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology in Germany.
The team wanted to find out how much gossip can be relied on as a good guide to reputation and how much it can be abused to destroy a reputation.
They found, in experimental games in which students could write comments about other people (a form of gossip) that the ability to tarnish others is diminished, the more gossip there is.
"Multiple gossip statements give a better picture of the actual behaviour of a person, and thus inaccurate or fake gossip has little power as long as it is in the minority."
The study, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, Biological Sciences, did experiments with 11 groups of a dozen students at the Universities of Kiel, Germany, and Vienna, Austria to show that "reciprocity, trust and reputations transferred via gossip are positively correlated."
The games involved giving money to other players in a game that tests how players trust each other to cooperate and studying the effects of gossip on the reputation of potential receivers and the resulting donations.
A detailed analysis backed earlier work by the same group that showed that people cooperate more often with cooperators than with defectors; people write more positive gossip about cooperators than about defectors; and people cooperate more with people about whom they read positive gossip than with people about whom they read negative gossip.
Those who benefited most from gossip were those who discovered who was a reliable exchange partner and who was a cheat, which helped them to find reproductive mates and manage friendships, alliances, and family relationships.
The social intelligence needed for success in this environment required an ability to predict and influence the behaviour of others and an irresistible interest in the private dealings of other people would have been very useful.
Those who were fascinated by the lives of others were more successful than those who were not, the researchers found.
Thus gossip helps to glue society together or, as they put it, "This corroborates the hypothesis that gossip is a vector for socially relevant information."
However, they did find a dampening effect when gossip suggested someone was totally bad or good at cooperating.
"Somehow, people seem to be reluctant to believe in the absolute cooperation or defection. Especially, people facing purely negative gossip showed an unexpectedly high cooperation. They might have told themselves 'he/she can't be that bad'.
Encouragingly for those worried about the occasional snide remark, "we showed that single inaccurate statements have only limited power to influence people's responses."
But there are limits to the study. "Our design represents a benign world without any incentive for gossip authors to cheat. Apparently, the real world is different, and future research needs to investigate the power of gossip in situations where cheaters might profit from lying."
The development of trust through reputation is becoming even more relevant today as we increasingly deal with many more people on line whom we don't know and are unlikely to encounter again.
Examples of modern e-commerce where this is important are eBay and Amazon, where users are encouraged to give their feedback online, which can be thought of as "e-gossip."