People show little scepticism towards information received through gossip about another person that might be infected with the coronavirus, despite the possibly that the information is not true. Also, the information received through gossip affects the extent to which this person is considered contagious. These are the results from a research at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.

02/04/2021 | 11:28 AM

Social Scientists Terence Dores Cruz, dr. Romy van der Lee and prof. Bianca Beersma are conducting a study on how people respond to information received through gossip about the infection risk of covid-19. Their research is part of the European Research Council Project Force of Gossip. The results show that people respond strongly to gossip about another person that might be infected: ‘Even when people were relatively sceptical of gossip, they still respond to the information it contains about the infection risk posed by the other described in the gossip’, tells Dores Cruz.

Another result, tells Dores Cruz, is linked to the extent to which people find the behavioural social distancing norms important: ‘People perceived others who were described in gossip as having violated norms and as being infected with the virus as most contagious and were most willing to avoid them’. 

Surprisingly, the intentions to punish those who were described in gossip as a person that violates the behavioural norms were generally low. Even though people react strongly to violations of norms, engaging in punishment is a step too far: ‘This could be due to a general unwillingness to engage in confrontational behaviours or because punishing others in this way runs a risk of retaliation. Another possibility is that personal confrontation or punishment carries an infection risk.’ 

The results of the research are based on an online experiment using scenarios. Dores Cruz explains: ‘We crafted a scenario that represented real life, in which participants imagined receiving gossip about another person that varied in which aspects of infection risk it described. To estimate how people respond to gossip, we asked them questions about the contagiousness of the person described in the gossip and how they would behave towards the target.’ 

With this research they hope to illuminate that information is extremely important in the current pandemic: ‘Our data show that unofficial information, for example spread through gossip, can be important to understanding behaviour in the current crisis. Gossip could both play a part in alleviating the current crisis by contributing to slowing the spread of the virus, as well as potentially exacerbate the current crisis through increased social isolation of group members based on unverified information. In other words, gossip might be a sharp sword, but it needs to be wielded with care’, tells Dores Cruz.