Psychologists stated that some information about the social environment is complex and it is difficult to gain information from only first-hand experience (Foster, 2004). Therefore, second-hand information is common, and when it's about other people, it's called gossip (Foster, 2004).
Some researchers say that gossip has the role of transmitting information (Sommerfeld et al., 2007), and this may be seen as a need in order to learn social information (Baumeister, Zhang, & Vohs, 2004).
Gossip and Selective Learning
Several researchers examined whether children trust information only from first-hand experience and, if they do not, how much they prefer to learn from indirect experience.
Previous studies with adult participants noted that adults tend to trust gossip rather than first-hand observation (Sommerfeld, et al., 2007). On the contrary, some studies stated that skepticism is higher for gossip compared to first-hand information (Kuttler et al., cited in Baumeister, Zhang, & Vohs, 2004).
Also, it is important to note that children’s evaluation of sources of information changes with age. While 5-year-olds were not affected by the source of information, children 6 and older display skepticism toward information gained by gossip, and by 7 years old, they prefer to trust first-hand information (Haux et al., 2016).
Thus, with the light of the above, it can be suggested that children do not only learn from first-hand observations, but also from other’s testimonies, with which they can infer knowledge (Jaswal, 2010; Aldan& Soley, 2019).
Types of Gossip and Selective Trust
While children’s attitudes toward trusting a source change depend on their age, other factors that may contribute to this change should also be examined.
It has been shown that gossip may contain positive and negative goals and intentions, and this may also vary depending on the subject (e.g. Ingram, & Bering, 2010; Feinberg et al., 2012).
Some studies suggest that gossip has the motive to harm others by damaging their reputation (Baumeister, cited in, Baumeister, Zhang, & Vohs, 2004).
For example, tattling has been defined as the denouncing of a third person’s counter-normative behavior to the second person, and the majority of children’s communication about their peers’ behavior was intended for reporting them for norm violations (Ingram, & Bering, 2010).
On the other hand, some scholars also mentioned ‘good gossip’ meaning any act of gossip that serves a goal of protecting the target of the gossip from antisocial behaviors or maintaining the group benefit (Feinberg et al., 2012).
Researchers refer to this kind of gossip as prosocial gossip since it engenders to group benefit and cooperation (Feinberg et al., 2012).
In a study, that examined whether children’s evaluation of whom to trust was affected by the valence of information (positive or negative), it was found that younger children relied on negative information rather than positive (Haux et al., 2016). This finding was also consistent with previous studies that suggest a negativity bias (Aldan &Soley, 2019; Doebel &Koenig, 2013).
Therefore, besides the age of the child, the intention and motivation of the gossip can also be a factor for selectively trusting the informant.
According to previous studies, children do not show any difference between gossip and first-hand information at the age of 5, but tend to trust direct information more after age 7 (Haux et al., 2016).
Children are good at detecting harmful information to protect themselves, which is described as the negativity bias (Aldan, &Soley, 2019). Therefore, it is important to note that it is also possible that children’s selective trust can change in terms of whether the valance of gossip is positive (prosocial) or negative (tattling). Therefore, for further studies, researchers may examine whether children prefer to trust the informant who gives social information about a past event by prosocial gossip more than the informant who gives social information about a past event by tattling due to the positivity bias.
By Fatma Sila Cakmak, M.Sc. Psychology: Learning Sciences student.
Aldan, P., & Soley, G. (2019). The role of intergroup biases in children’s endorsement of information about novel individuals. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 179, 291–307. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jecp.2018.11.007
Alejandro Paz. (2009). The Circulation of “Chisme” and “Rumor”: Gossip, Evidentiality, and Authority in the Perspective of Latino Labor Migrants in Israel. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, 19(1), 117.
Baumeister, R. F., Zhang, L., & Vohs, K. D. (2004). Gossip as cultural learning. Review of general psychology, 8(2), 111–121.
Doebel, S., & Koenig, M. A. (2013). Children’s use of moral behavior in selective trust: discrimination versus learning. Developmental Psychology, (3), 462.
Feinberg, M., Cheng, J. T., & Willer, R. (n.d.). Gossip as an effective and low-cost form of punishment. Behavioral And Brain Sciences, 35. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0140525X11001233
Foster, E. K. (2004). Research on Gossip: Taxonomy, Methods, and Future Directions. Review of General Psychology, 8(2), 78–99. https://doi.org/10.1037/1089-26220.127.116.11
Haux, L., Engelmann, J. M., Herrmann, E., & Tomasello, M. (2017). Do young children preferentially trust gossip or firsthand observation in choosing a collaborative partner? Social Development, (3), 466. https://doi.org/10.1111/sode.12225
Ingram, G. P. D. (n.d.). From hitting to tattling to gossip: An evolutionary rationale for the development of indirect aggression. Evolutionary Psychology, 12(SPECIALISSUE.2), 343–363.
Jaswal, V. K. (2010). Believing what you’re told: Young children’s trust in unexpected testimony about the physical world. Cognitive Psychology, (3), 248.
Sommerfeld, R. D., Krambeck, H. J., Semmann, D., & Milinski, M. (2007). Gossip as an alternative for direct observation in games of indirect reciprocity. Proceedings of the national academy of sciences, 104(44), 17435–17440.