CHICAGO--Think a little gossip is harmless? Beware: new research says gossiping can be a form of warfare in which information is used as a weapon that could potentially damage a competitor's reputation. An effective defense, according to the study released here last week   at the annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists: friends.

Study author Nicole Hess, an evolutionary psychologist at Washington State University in Vancouver, says she instructed 500 subjects to imagine that they were competing for a promotion within a corporation.  She then had them read a list of positive and negative statements, or “gossip,” about their rival for the promotion, and asked them how likely they would be to relay each tidbit to others in the office.

Hess found that participants tended to spread more of the negative comments when she raised the stakes  by increasing the salary or decreasing the number of promotions available. But, she says, they were less likely to denigrate their competitor when  told their opponent had a pal in the company.

In addition to supporting the idea that people use gossip strategically, Hess's findings indicate that having an ally within the community deters negative gossip.  The reason, she speculates: your friend will be in the know and may be able to help you use retaliatory gossip to thwart attacks. (The protective effect of having an ally in the office did not result from making the competitor seem more likeable: participants did not hold back on spreading nasty gossip when they were told that a rival had a friend in the neighborhood, rather than in the office.)

Scientists have theorized that women dish more than men do, but Hess found that the sexes were equally willing to badmouth to get a leg up on the competition. She therefore suspects that a tendency to gossip depends more on the situation than on the gender of the busybody. It may be, however, that women more often than men find themselves in situations in which gossiping pays off.

Hess surmises that informational warfare may be more effective in intra-group competitions, whereas physical warfare works better between groups. If so, and if, as some research suggests, women face more competition within groups than men do, then women "should be more inclined to gossip competitively about group members," she says.

One reason women may experience more competition within groups, she says, is because in many societies they are more likely to join their mate's group when they marry – and may then have to compete with women in that new group.

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