The Oxford Handbook of Gossip and Reputation

Here are some excerpts from this 2019 book:

* GOSSIP and reputation are core processes in all human societies. Consequently, humans invest a great amount of effort to keep track of others’ reputation and to effectively manage their own. This is especially true in the contemporary world. New technologies increased the number of potential partners and interactions and changed the way we deal with information about others. Reputation management companies and specialists are no longer employed only by movie stars and firms’ CEOs, but these services are required by more and more people. According to Forbes, 82% of executive recruiters report that positive information found online can improve a candidate’s job prospects, but also that firms risk losing more than 20% of business when potential customers find a negative review on their first page of search results. In the offline world, positive or negative reputations result from gossip, which is a primary source of information about others, and it is also a very popular activity, widespread across time and culture.

Gossip and reputation are multifaceted social phenomena. As theoretical constructs, they share several characteristics that pose a challenge for attempts to get a grip on them. First and foremost, both are part of a triadic relation, in which at least three types of actors “engage” with each other. Gossiping requires somebody (a sender) conveying information about a third party (object) to somebody else (receiver); having a reputation implies that the information we receive about someone’s presumed qualities has been generated by somebody else. It involves at least three relational acts: an act of attribution, in which someone attaches an (evaluative) quality to someone else (e.g., Vaidyanathan, Khalsa, & Ecklund, 2016); an act of sharing, in which this attribution is communicated (Hallett, Harger, & Eder, 2009) to others; and an act of perception in which this attribution is recognized and understood as such by a receiver (p. 2) (Kuttler, Parker, & LaGreca, 2002). In the case of gossip, an additional condition is that it requires the absence of the third party, that is, secrecy at the moment of transmission. Any attempt to systematically observe these phenomena in real-life or in the lab will have to find a way to capture this combination of attribution, communication, and perception in triadic structures. In addition to psychological complexity, the triadic and relational aspects of gossip and reputation also come with structural complexity. For example, for the individuals involved to disclose sensitive or evaluative third-party information, power differences matter (Ellwardt, Wittek, & Wielers, 2012; Jeuken et al., 2015).

Second, in most societies the act of gossiping, but also of strategically “managing” one’s own reputation or “damaging” the reputation of others, tends to be normatively regulated and morally laden (Alfano & Robinson, 2017; Bertolotti & Magnani, 2014; Fernandes, Kapoor, & Karandikar, 2017; Peters & Kashima, 2015; Radzik, 2016). The discourse on gossip illustrates this nicely, since for each negative view on gossip, there is a positive one. According to the philosopher Henry Lanz: “In gossip we are pleased to discuss other people’s faults, seldom their merits. We thus seem to enjoy evil for evil’s sake. For we are pleased by faults and errors. We are content to see them endure and grow. We are eager to augment their number and to exaggerate their importance” (Lanz, 1936, p. 494). In contrast, Robin Dunbar, who posited that gossip could have played a major role in the evolution of language, believes that gossip is “the central plank on which human sociality
is founded” (2004, p. 109). Similarly, whereas many emphasize effective reputation management as the key to success for individuals and firms, others point to the “dangerous art of impression management.”

Third, the moral connotation of both phenomena is related to the fact that they require agency of those involved and therefore allow strategic behavior. Individuals may deliberately spread lies about others (Seki & Nakamaru, 2016), or they may attempt to manipulate the image others have about them. Although gossip has been described as “cheap talk” (Coleman, 1990), it is evident that not everybody will share everything about any third party with anyone else: selective disclosure can be of tremendous strategic value for furthering the interests of oneself or one’s group (Burt, 1992). Consequently, assessing the veracity of gossip (Hess & Hagen, 2006; Kuttler, Parker, & La Greca, 2002) becomes a challenge of its own.

Fourth, judging from the evidence that has been compiled so far, gossip and reputation are truly multipurpose social phenomena. As the chapters in this Handbook also demonstrate, the list of their potential “functions” for individuals and groups is impressive, ranging from their impact on emotions and the fulfilment of basic human needs to the cohesion of groups and human sociality in general.

Fifth, the wide-ranging impact of gossip and reputation may stem from the pivotal role they have played in human evolution (e.g., Massar, Buunk, & Rempt, 2012). Their evolutionary base may explain not only the strong emotional and neurophysiological reactions they can trigger (Anderson et al., 2011; Brondino, Fusar-Poli, & Politi, 2017; Peng et al.,
2015), but also account for the distinct variations in their behavioral base and impact between the sexes or along social hierarchies.

Finally, whereas recent research provides evidence for cross-cultural measurement invariance for (workplace) gossip (Brady, Brown & Liang, 2017) and for reputation as a “universal currency for human social interactions” (Milinski, 2016), the antecedents, processes, and consequences of gossip and reputation are highly context dependent. This holds not only for differences across cultures (Henrich et al., 2006; Marlowe et al., 2008), but also across other kinds of social collectives. For example, the incidence, content, form, and function of gossip and reputation may vary depending on the social-structural environment, such as the kind and degree of (inter)dependence in organizations or communities or the socioeconomic position of those involved.

Despite their importance in social life, academic interest in gossip and reputation has developed relatively recently. In 1993, Bromley wrote, “Reputation is a phenomenon of considerable social and scientific importance, but the interest shown in it by writers and by ordinary people has not been paralleled by an equivalent degree of interest shown by social and behavioural scientists” (Bromley, 1993, p. 8). A similar concern was shared by Goodman (1994), who wrote in the introduction to his edited volume on gossip that “until recently, philosophers and social scientists have paid scant attention to gossip” (p. 1). Still in 2004, Wert and Salovey wrote in their introduction to the Special Issue on Gossip
published by the Review of General Psychology that “Gossip matters to all things social, yet social scientists have been slow to pursue its secrets” (p. 76).

Gossip, Internet-Based Reputation Systems, and Governance

The eBay electronic market provides one of the most interesting examples of Internetbased reputation systems, and it is also the most widely researched. Founded in 1995, today it has over 160 million active users around the world, generating close to one billion yearly listings. One key of its success is the fact that both sellers and buyers might write an
assessment, or “feedback”, on each other, which can be positive, neutral, or negative. The percentage of positive feedbacks received in the previous 12 months forms an index of reputation of sort. In a situation where otherwise there would be ample room for cheating, this feature provides incentives to behave honestly, to be efficient, and to invest in quality.
Similar mechanisms are in place in many electronic markets, and all Internet-based reputation systems share some of the key characteristics of eBay. Such Internet-based systems serve as tools to process reputationally relevant information in situations where traditional word-of-mouth would not work, because of the impersonal nature of the relationship among
participants who are typically geographically scattered.

* First, according to a point of view originating in Dunbar (1996), “gossip [is] a mechanism for bonding social groups, tracing these origins back to social grooming among primates” (Dunbar, 2004). According to Baumeister et al. (2004), gossip “can convey valuable information to the hearer about culture and society” and it spurs cultural learning, and several studies (for example, Gottman and Mettetal, 1986) sustain that gossip serves to promote group solidarity. In revealing “personal information about the gossiper”, gossip “communicates to the listener that he or she is trusted” (Bosson et al., 2006) and helps “cement and maintain social bonds” (Baumeister et al, 2004). Also, (negative) gossip ties persons together by providing opportunities for downward social comparisons, which, in turn ”can boost self esteem”. Bosson et al. (2006) (referring to Wert and Salovey, 2004) note that “by gossiping with a potential friend about her dislike of a third person, the gossiper signals to the gossipee that she considers him an in-group member, which should promote self-esteem and grease the wheels of their friendship.”

In fact, gossip might grease human interactions also precisely because it is perceived to be ethically wrong. Ego pays a cost in case alter exposes him as a gossiper, so that gossip might function as a bond of trust between ego and alter. Alter shares the moral blame with ego, to the extent that he approvingly accepts to hear the gossip, and even more so when, as it
often happens, roles are interchanged in a “gossiping session”. Willingly assuming the moral cost of gossiping, and the possibility of reciprocally exposing each other to the social stigma which accompanies such activity, facilitates cooperation by bonding ego and alter. For all these reasons, even negative gossip, far from having the merely destructive role that it is often assumed, might actually positively affect organizational output, and encourage cooperation beyond the direct effects of the reputational information that it disseminates.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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