One bad rumour can affect how children view each other, study finds

In the ruthless world of the primary school playground, one bad rumour is enough to make children wary of another, new research suggests.

Psychologists who studied gossip in seven-year-olds found that the children trusted good rumours when they came from several sources, but could be swayed by bad rumours they heard only once.

What lies behind the children’s decisions is unclear, but the scientists said the finding may reflect the risk of being conned into befriending a classmate only to find out the hard way that they are a terrible brat.

“It may be functionally adaptive for children to adjust their behaviour based on negative gossip simply to avoid harmful situations caused by future interactions with a malevolent person,” the authors wrote in Royal Society Open Science. “They might be exploited or harmed by a person who is actually ill-intentioned.”

For the study, 108 seven-year-olds in Japan watched a series of short videos involving a pair of puppet characters, one wearing a checked shirt, the other clad in polka dots, to make them easy to distinguish.

After making an appearance, each puppet tottered off screen, passing one to five other puppets, who duly turned informants, sharing good, bad or neutral gossip with the viewer.

Positive gossip described kind acts such as sharing sweets or helping someone in trouble, while negative gossip included accusations of stealing, hitting or breaking toys. In neutral gossip the character was said to have drawn a picture, gone for a walk or played on a swing.

When the videos ended, the children were asked to dish out rewards to the main characters in the form of stickers. The researchers at Osaka University and NTT Communication Science Laboratories in Kyoto found that the children were more generous when multiple informants shared positive gossip. But hearing even one bad rumour was enough to hit the rewards the children doled out.

“The children acted upon positive gossip from multiple informants but not from a single informant,” the authors wrote. “Conversely, they relied on negative gossip regardless of the number of sources.”

Kirk Chang, a professor of employee management and technology at the University of East London and an expert on workplace gossip, said negative gossip could hold more importance for young children, particularly before they develop the skills to make good risk assessments and decisions.

“If the experiment was duplicated with mature participants, for example 30- to 40-year-olds with job experience, the outcome may be completely different,” he said.

Kim Peters, a professor in human resource management at the University of Exeter and a former winner of the Ig Nobel peace prize for her work on trust and gossip, said people were generally more sensitive to negative information about character.

“To put this in everyday terms, we would expect even the worst people to be nice to some people some of the time,” she said. “This means that bad behaviour is likely to be more informative than good behaviour and should, accordingly, exert a greater impact on us.”

Peters added: “How seriously we take the information we receive in gossip, and how much it shapes our behaviour, is going to depend to a great extent on our history of interactions with the gossiper.

“We may also be generally more sceptical of negative gossip, because it may say more about the gossiper’s need to vent than about the person they are venting about. All this is to say that in most everyday circumstances we will not be too quick to judge and will be willing to update our impressions as additional information comes in.”

The Guardian