Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Gossip more powerful than facts in shaping opinion: study

Think of this next time you try in vain to convince someone of something by using facts...
"People are unduly influenced by gossip, even if it contradicts what they have seen," said Ralf Sommerfeld, an evolutionary biologist at the Max Plank Institute for Evolutionary Biology in Germany.

He suggested that people tend to place a certain stock in gossip because culturally it has evolved as a useful information-gathering tool.
Gossip may do more to shape a person's opinion than facts they know to be true, even when the chit-chat contradicts the evidence, a study released Monday said.
The findings emerged from a study by German researchers who set out to find how gossip about a person's reputation affects the way people behave towards that individual.

To probe the role of gossip in this context, the researchers set up an experiment where 126 undergraduate students engaged in a series of computer-based games with anonymous partners or adversaries.

The students were given a pot of 10 euros (14 dollars) and allowed to choose whether to give their "partners" a fixed donation (1.25 euros, 1.75 dollars) or withhold the money.

In later rounds of the game, the players were given notes about the way their adversaries had behaved in previous rounds, and specifically whether they were generous or not.

Players who read positive feedback about their partners tended to reward them with donations, suggesting that the group consensus or "gossip" had a strong impact on their decisions.

And finally, the researchers tried out a different scenario, providing players with a list of their partner's decisions in the most recent round of games, and providing false gossip that contradicted the facts.

Surprisingly, in this case the students' decisions appeared to be guided by the gossip rather than the evidence.

Writing in the paper, the authors noted that the findings suggest that humans "are used to basing their decisions on gossip, rumors, or other spoken information. Such a strategy could be successful in an environment where direct observation is potentially less common than indirect information about others."

In such a world, individuals gather a lot of information indirectly by gossip from different sources.

"The resulting picture of any person with whom the individual is in social contact would be much more refined than the picture based on the small amount of direct observation of these people."

The study appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

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