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No Sword Bites So Fiercly as an Evil Tongue? Gossip Wrecks Reputation, but Enhances Cooperation

Periodic Reporting for period 4 - EVILTONGUE (No Sword Bites So Fiercly as an Evil Tongue?Gossip Wrecks Reputation, but Enhances Cooperation)

Reporting period: 2020-06-01 to 2021-03-31

Social norms in general and norms of cooperation in particular, are the cement of social order in all human societies. The maintenance of social norms and cooperation, however, is not easy as there are tempting individual incentives for norm violations and free riding on the effort of others. In order to manage norms and cooperation, humans have developed institutional as well as informal solutions. Reputation mechanisms and informal communication about others behind their back (gossip) are certainly among the most important informal management tools that are present in any context of human social life.
This is puzzling, because according to common wisdom, gossip channels mainly negative and often fictitious information. If it is the case: how can gossip legitimize social order and promote cooperation?
Throughout our comprehensive research program, we accumulated solid evidence that gossip is an essential part of informal conversations and it can be differentiated from other topics of social enjoyment. Gossip plays an important role in forming reputations about others, and provides social orientation in the group. With the insights gained, we can overcome common stereotypes about gossip and highlight how gossip is related to credible reputations, cooperation, and social order. Our results help outline the conditions that can promote cooperation, and help construct successful prevention strategies for social exclusion and for other potentially harmful consequences of the evil tongue.
We analyzed our research questions in various contexts exploiting a wide set of instruments. We used analytical models and agent-based simulations to test the consistency of the connection between micro mechanisms and group level outcomes and developed new theoretical results concerning the relation of gossip, social networks, social norms, and cooperation. We tested hypotheses about the conditions under which communication can be honest, gossip and reputation mechanisms can be reliable, and can support cooperation in decision making experiments. We developed new methodological tools to appropriately analyze the triadic nature of gossip embedded in network flows of information. We utilized longitudinal social network data from primary and secondary school classes, and collected qualitative and quantitative information in organizations to test hypotheses about the determinants and the role of gossip for informal social order in different developmental and social contexts of life. In addition, we applied new communication technologies to explore the hidden world of gossip and the dynamics of reputation in bounded social contexts. We built large corpora of spontaneous informal conversations, manually annotated their content in relation to gossip and cooperation, and tested hypotheses about the prevalence and distinctiveness of gossip in human communication.
We achieved some breakthroughs. No previous data could convincingly support the claim that gossip constitutes a large part of human communication. We confirmed this hypothesis in our large corpora of spontaneous conversations. We highlighted that gossip is distinct from other topics of social enjoyment, such as discussions on food and entertainment. Gossip is detrimental for the construction of reputations about others and provides information not only about the wrong-doing of others, but also on motives, intentions, and beliefs. Gossip is most often honest and is in line with the observed action of targets, hence the reputational information it conveys can typically be considered as reliable. We found evidence that reputation is taken into account when we interact with others. Our findings explain how and under what conditions gossip can be considered as an efficient mechanism that contributes to cooperation and informal social order.
Our project achievements have been published in scientific journals, presented at international conferences, and featured in the general press. Our results have been showcased at outreach events. We organized regular seminars with presentations by academic experts in the field. We played a major role in the organization of scientific events on gossip, reputation, and cooperation, and established ongoing collaborations. We organized a well-attended workshop in May 2018 on Gossip, Reputation, and Honesty in Budapest. Jointly with leading scholars of the field, we organized an international workshop at the Lorentz Center in Leiden on “The Language of Cooperation: Reputation and Honest Signaling” in September 2019. As a follow-up, a special issue in the prestigious journal Philosophical Transactions of Royal Society B is on its way.
We developed models that are able to explain under which conditions honest gossip is viable; how and under which structural conditions it enhances cooperation and contributes to the maintenance of social order. The possibility of deception makes the evolution of cooperation via indirect reciprocity and reputation mechanisms fragile, and hypocrisy makes the convergence of opinions slow. Based on signaling theory, we showed that honest communication does not need to be costly, and honesty is stable if the marginal cost of cheating is greater than its potential benefit. We analyzed indirect reciprocity based reputation mechanisms to identify the conditions under which they can establish cooperation. We found that indirect reciprocity relying on social capital inherent in closed triads is better able to produce cooperation benefits, outperforming strategies that use information from impartial sources. We also explored the social norms dictating appropriate behavior and judgement of others in response to their previous cooperative actions and reputation. We identified the norms can sustain cooperation through a reputation-based indirect reciprocity mechanism with subjective reputational evaluations and local influence.
Our school and organizational studies demonstrated that gossip and reputation systems are not independent of the goals individuals strive for. We identified a strong impact of direct and indirect negative relations. We showed that positive and negative network ties and internal group formation are interrelated with gossip and reputation. Our finding that reputational status concerns are often generalized to other members of the group has important implications for a variety of social problems including discrimination. In the organizational context, envy seems to be a crucial determinant of spreading unfavorable evaluations and spreading of reputations itself is linked to brokerage in the social network.
We developed a new statistical modeling tool for analyzing three-way (sender, receiver, and target) relational event data, such as gossip. We designed smartwatch-based applications for the study of factual patterns of gossip in spontaneous conversations among informed and consented participants.
Thanks to our technological innovation, we collected spontaneous conversation data in three different fields and built large natural language corpora. As a result, we accumulated solid quantitative evidence that gossip is an essential part of informal conversations, which claim has previously been made based purely on anthropological accounts. As a novel finding, we showed that gossip can be differentiated from other topics of social enjoyment, plays an important role in forming reputations about others, and provides orientation in the group.
The dynamics and interrelation of gossip, reputations, and cooperation
Overview of the dormitory field study
Use of smartwatch devices for recording informal communication among consented participants