Talk of the town: Is gossip a good indication of character?

18th-century diarist Horace Walpole collected gossip because he thought it was a good indication of character. The research seems to prove him right, says Andy McSmith

The Earl of Coventry, a former Tory MP elevated to the post of Lord of the Bedchamber to King George II, was "ignorant, ill-bred, jealous, [a] prude and scrupulous", a domestic tyrant with a "silly" wife, named Elizabeth, who was banned by her husband from wearing red or using red make-up of any description.

In 1752, the couple visited France, where they joined a party of 16 for dinner, when the Earl suddenly "coursed his wife round the table, on suspecting she had stolen on a little red, seized her, scrubbed it off by force with a napkin, and then told her that since she had deceived him and broke her promise, he would carry her back directly to England". And he did – the chauvinist swine.

Does this story matter? Did it even matter 260 years ago, when the Earl was a major figure in English politics? It is just gossip. The words quoted are from a letter written by that inveterate gossip, Horace Walpole, who was the kind of person who, in our time, might have been a journalist, possibly a political journalist, or diary writer, or both – the kind of nosey hack who would have been scornfully rebuked by Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's old spin doctor, for retailing "gossip dressed up as news".

In that same letter, Walpole defended his right to gossip, saying: "I don't know whether you will not think all these very trifling histories; but for myself, I love anything that marks a character strongly."

His stance has been vindicated, all these years later, by an experiment conducted at Stanford University, in California, in which 216 volunteers were divided into groups to play games and make financial choices. After round one, they were all allowed to gossip, before being divided into new groups to continue playing.

Researchers noted that gossip helped participants to know who was a team player and who was not, and to exclude or ostracise those who had been uncooperative. The researchers' conclusion is that gossip is good for us all. It rewards with social acceptance those who behave considerately, and ostracises the selfish, giving them an incentive to improve their behaviour. "Despite negative connotations, the pairing of the capacity to gossip and to ostracise undesirable individuals from groups has a strong positive effect on cooperation levels in groups," said Robb Willer, Associate Professor of Sociology at Stanford.

Like so much research into human behaviour, this is – with the greatest of respect to the experts at Stanford – a statement of the blindingly obvious. Gossip is useful. Had you been planning a dinner party for your aristocratic friends in the year 1752, why would you not invite Lord and Lady Coventry, unless a gossip had warned you that the esteemed Earl was actually a cad who thought nothing of ruining an evening by publicly humiliating his wife? And what else would prompt him to improve his table manners than if his dinner invitations suddenly dried up?

Now, of course, nobody relies on the post to bring them their best gossip, when there is so much of the stuff to be gleaned from magazines, newspapers, and the web. Those who have some gossip to spread, if doing it by word of mouth, will usually put it on Facebook, Twitter or some other online outlet, where it remains in perpetuity, and they can never be certain who will see it. Should Justin Bieber be minded to commit some gossip to Twitter, it will go out instantly to more than 49 million followers.

Therein lies a problem of modern life, because people can operate in the virtual world free from the kind of social pressures the researchers in Stanford University were studying. By communicating via a keyboard with people they do not know and cannot see, they can have the illusion of being part of a social group without experiencing the peer group pressure they would find in a workplace where colleagues gossip freely.

Gossip has a bad name because we love the gossip we hear, but stress about the gossip we cannot hear, because it is about us. When I talk about you out of earshot, I am expressing an opinion, exercising my right of free speech. When you talk about me behind my back, that is gossip. But, put together, all this chatter is a pretty good way of assessing someone's character through crowd-sourcing. And it can be so much more interesting than the serious stuff.

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