The Rumor Mill

Why it goes round and round.

July 9, 2024

Reading time min

People gossiping around a water cooler

Illustration: Giorgia Virgili

You didn’t hear it from us, but . . . your wisest ancestors probably gossiped. Scientists believe we’ve been talking behind each other’s backs since the age of hunter-gatherers, and it’s an impulse that gave gossipers an evolutionary edge. But why? wondered Michele Gelfand, a professor of organizational behavior at the Graduate School of Business. To find out, Gelfand and her fellow researchers built a game theory–based computer model populated by agents that interacted using one of six conversational strategies. Over thousands of iterations, as the agents analyzed and adopted one another’s strategies, gossipers proliferated.

The researchers found that gossip helped promote cooperation and deter selfishness—no agent wanted to appear self-serving around someone they knew would spill that tea later. “As more people are thinking about others’ reputations, they’re getting concerned about their own reputations too,” Gelfand said in an interview with the GSB. Ultimately, about 90 percent of agents became gossipers and reaped the rewards of the rumor mill. One caveat: For gossip to do good, it had to be true—at least mostly.

Kali Shiloh is a staff writer at Stanford. Email her at

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