Prize for research on gossip that makes you laugh as well as think

  • Date

    Mon 26 Sep 22

headshot of Dr Sergio Lo Iacono

Research into why people don’t stick to the facts when they gossip has won an international prize.

Dr Sergio Lo Iacono from the Department of Sociology at the University of Essex was part of an international research team who have been awarded the Ig Nobel Prize, which recognises research which makes people laugh then think.

The team’s new paper is published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, and uses mathematical modelling to better understand when gossip can be expected to be honest or dishonest.

Despite being ever-present, gossip has received relatively little attention from scientists. Gossip is something that we humans do so often, so naturally, that we don’t even think of it as anything special.

Approximately two-thirds of people’s conversations are devoted to social topics, much of which takes the form of gossip – sharing information about an absent, third person. And gossip can have an enormous impact on people’s lives, both by boosting people’s reputations and by tearing them down.

Dr Lo Iacono said: “The Ig Nobel Prize spurs people’s interest in science by celebrating playfulness, imagination, and creative thinking. Humour is key to drawing our attention to compelling topics. Having laughed we then go on to think more deeply about what we have heard. This way of sharing scientific research is vital to reach audiences beyond fellow academics. I am honoured to be one of the laureates!”

The new study shows that the interdependence of individuals in a gossip triad — the gossiper, the recipient of gossip, and the target of the gossip — should affect the extent to which gossip is honest or dishonest. For example, people would tend to be more dishonest when gossiping about the uncooperative behaviour of people with whom they have long-term cooperative relationships or are strongly biologically related, and more honest when gossiping about the uncooperative behaviour of people with whom they are not highly interdependent.

The team agrees the harmful and potentially dishonest nature of gossip requires further study. The team said: “Our research indicates that the positive functions of gossip are certainly true for honest gossip, but the problem of dishonesty and the conditions in which it occurs requires further study. It’s unavoidable that people will be sometimes tempted to be dishonest in their communication about absent others.”