Sometimes a story is so shocking or scandalous it's nearly impossible to resist passing it on.
But what makes for an ideal piece of gossip? Researchers found that people are mostly likely to spread a story if it's about a person who is familiar to them, and if it's a particularly "juicy" piece of information.
People sometimes use gossip quite selfishly to enhance their own social status. But a growing body of research shows that the universal behavior can be socially beneficial within groups, with an important role in bonding and establishing unspoken social norms. Gossip spreads like wildfire, especially among small, closely knit social groups. However, not much is known about why people feel compelled to gossip. [Understanding the 10 Most Destructive Human Behaviors]
"Intuitively, it's not surprising that we are more likely to gossip about familiar people and interesting stories," Bo Yao, the lead author of the paper, said in a statement. "However, we are much more likely to gossip when a story unites a familiar person with an interesting scenario."
To test what makes gossip irresistible, Yao and colleagues created fictional stories. Some of the stories included well-known individuals like David Beckham and President Barack Obama, and others used made-up, noncelebrity counterparts. In some stories, interesting things happened to the characters, such as getting caught with drugs or having a public fight. In the other stories, the characters did something boring, such as going grocery shopping.
For example, a story about the Obama family's trip to Paris might either describe their tour of the Bastille, or tell of them eating at McDonald's because the children refused to eat French food.
The participants rated each story on a scale of 1 to 4, based on how interesting it was and how likely they would be to pass the anecdote along to others. The researchers found that people were much more likely to spread the gossip if the characters were familiar to them, and if the information was surprising in some way. On average, the participants gave gossip that featured a celebrity and interesting information a score of 2.79. Stories with a noncelebrity and interesting information received a 1.95, on average.
Participants said they were more likely to spread stories that featured a celebrity and had boring information (2.05) than stories that starred a noncelebrity with interesting information (1.95).
In a follow-up experiment, the researchers asked the volunteers to describe their emotional responses to the story, how surprised they were by the tale and if their opinion of the main characters changed by the end of the story.
The results showed that people are more likely to spread the gossip if it changed their opinion of the person in the story. The researchers suspect people are more likely to spread this kind of gossip because new information could mean that those within the same social group need to re-evaluate what they know about the person.
Although celebrity gossip is a good starting point for understanding the phenomenon, more research is still needed into what makes gossip about casual friends and acquaintances spread, Yao and the researchers wrote in the paper, published Aug. 13 in the journal PLOS ONE.