Those with better reputations often obtain more resources than those with poorer reputations. It is therefore possible that reputation-relevant gossip might be an evolved social competition strategy to increase access to valuable and scarce material and social resources. Influenced by models of nonhuman primate competition, and using experimental, survey, and ego network analysis methods, we develop and test the hypotheses that gossip (1) targets aspects of reputation relevant to the domain in which the competition is occurring, (2) increases when the contested resources are more valuable, and (3) increases when resources are scarcer. We then develop and test hypotheses derived from ‘informational warfare’ theory, which proposes that coalitions strategically collect, analyze, and disseminate gossip. Specifically, we test whether (4) coalitions deter negative gossip and (5) whether they increase expectations of reputational harm to competitors.

Using experimental methods in an Mturk sample (N=600) and observational methods in a sample of California sorority women (N=74), we found that gossip content is specific to the context of the competition; that more valuable and scarcer contested resources cause gossip, particularly negative gossip, to intensify; and that allies deter negative gossip and increase expectations of reputational harm to an adversary, perhaps because allies improve ability to collect, analyze, and disseminate information about competitors. These results support social competition theories of gossip.


Increased competition for resources among group members is a substantial cost of group living (Alexander, 1974). In many species, including numerous primates, within-group competition for resources involves physical aggression or dominance. Dominance rank is often based on an individual’s reputation for fighting ability, although it can also be inherited (e.g., Holekamp and Smale, 1991). In non-human primate females, for example, agonism is more common when food is available vs. not, when foods are more contestable, and when group sizes are larger (for review and meta-analysis of data from 44 primate species, see Wheeler et al. 2013). Wheeler et al (2013) found that the average rate of agonistic interactions among female primates is 0.61/hour.

Humans, too, physically contest material and social resources within groups (e.g., Wilson and Daly, 1985). They also obtain contested group resources via their reputations; in other words, they increase and defend access to group resources, including food, mates, and care, by increasing and defending their reputations relative to competitors. As in other species, human reputations can involve fighting ability (Alexander, 1987; Chagnon, 1988; Hess, Helfrecht, Hagen, Sell, and Hewlett 2010), but human reputations are often based on demonstrated abilities for providing benefits to group members (Alexander, 1987; Gurven, Allen-Arave, Hill, and Hurtado, 2000; Leimar and Hammerstein, 2001; Nowak and Sigmund, 1998; Sugiyama and Chacon, 2000; Hess and Hagen, 2019); success in undertaking risky behaviors, i.e., ‘showing off’ or ‘costly-signaling’ (Gintis, Smith, and Bowles, 2001; Hawkes, 1991; Smith & Bliege Bird, 2000); and engaging in reciprocal altruism (Cox, Sluckin, and Steele, 1999; Enquist and Leimar, 1993; Pollock and Dugatkin, 1992).

The social transfer of information about prosocial and other actions and abilities can substantially impact reputations. ‘Gossip’ is a construct that encapsulates behaviors related to the transfer of information about peoples’ actions and abilities. Dores Cruz et al. (2021) systematically evaluated definitions of gossip in the scientific literature, finding strong agreement that it involves “a sender communicating to a receiver about a target who is absent or unaware of the content” (p. 24). In addition, many definitions included a valence dimension (that gossip can be positive or negative), and an (in)formality dimension (gossip is informal rather than formal communication). Our operationalization of gossip in this study satisfies these four criteria, but also includes a fifth: that the gossip is true (in the real-world we do not claim that all gossip is true but instead that there are psychological mechanisms to evaluate cues of gossip veracity; Hess and Hagen 2006). We and many others argue that gossip is not a trivial pastime but rather an important social strategy.

One group of theoretical approaches to gossip, which we term ‘social competition’ theories, emphasize gossip as a means of manipulating reputations to the benefit of oneself, one’s kin, and one’s allies (e.g., Buss and Dedden, 1990; Paine, 1967). Corroborating this strategic, competitive view of gossip, it has become clear in recent decades that nonphysical forms of aggression, such as gossiping and ostracism, are common in both sexes and all age groups. These types of aggression have been given different names, including indirect aggression, relational aggression, and social aggression. Evolutionary approaches to non-physical aggression posit that it functions to increase access to resources and mates by harming competitors’ reputations or by excluding competitors from the group (e.g., Campbell, 1999; Archer, 2009; Hess 2006; see also Hawley, 1999; Hawley, Little, and Card, 2008). Gossip about negative deeds and qualities will decrease a target’s reputation, thus decreasing a target’s access to group resources—with the effect of increasing one’s own access to those resources. For discussions of these and other approaches to gossip in evolutionary perspective, see, e.g., Barkow, 1992; Hawley, 1999; Bloom 2004; Hess 2017; Hess and Hagen, 2006a, b; 2019; Wilson, Wilczynski, Wells, and Wiesner, 2000; Vaillancourt, 2013; Vaillancourt and Krems, 2018; Giardini and Wittek, 2019; Reynolds, 2021.

The current literature on indirect aggression has largely involved observational studies of children and adolescents, which usually rely on teacher and parent reports (Archer and Coyne, 2005), with much more limited investigation of adults, mostly based on self-reports (e.g., Archer, 2010; Vaillancourt and Farrell, 2021). Observational studies of real-world behavior are invaluable, but indirect aggression is hard to observe, patterns in children might differ from those in adults, self-reports can be self-serving, and the causal roles of factors thought to intensify indirect aggression are difficult to establish. We have hypothesized that the same factors that intensify physical competition among non-human animals should also intensify indirect aggression in women and men (Hess 2006; Hess 2017; Hess and Hagen 2019), specifically, that valuable and scarce resources should intensify indirect aggression. The first aim of this study is therefore to use randomized experimental methods, which provide evidence for causality, to test our hypothesis that competition for valuable and scarce resources will increase indirect aggression in adults.

Coalitional aggression

Among many nonhuman animals, both males and females form within-group coalitions and alliances to improve defense and acquisition of valuable, scarce resources (Harcourt and de Waal, 1992; Bissonnette et al., 2015). In particular, coalitions help males and females to increase, and especially maintain, social rank, which is a strong determinant of access to resources (Bissonnette et al., 2015).

Evolution-minded theorists of human behavior have similarly argued that coalitions and alliances can substantially enhance coalition members’ abilities to physically defend and acquire valuable resources like mates, food, and territory (Chagnon, 1988; Keeley, 1996; Kurzban, 2001; Pietraszewski, 2016; Tiger, 1969; Tooby and Cosmides, 1988; Wrangham and Peterson, 1996). In humans, coalitional psychology has been linked to an evolutionary history of warfare, an overwhelmingly male activity (Bowles, 2009; Chagnon, 1988; Choi and Bowles, 2007; Glowacki et al., 2017; Lehmann and Feldman, 2008; Lopez, 2017). Studies have indeed shown a male bias in coalitional psychology (e.g., Johnson, et al., 2006; Kurzban, 2001; Van Vugt, De Cremer, and Janssen, 2007).

Unlike coalitional relationships among nonhuman primates and other animals of both sexes, and among human males, coalitional relationships among women and girls are generally not viewed as having evolved to enhance aggression against competitors. Instead, these accounts posit evolutionary benefits for female relationships, and they presume that, unlike men’s relationships, women’s relationships do not function for aggressive acquisition and defense of contested resources. Smuts (1992), for example, emphasizes the role of female relationships in defending against male aggression. Rodseth, Wrangham, Harrigan and Smuts (1991, p. 232) conclude that women’s relationships “seem to be characterized by high degrees of noninterference mutualism, i.e., cooperation that does not impose a cost on any third party.” Taylor et al.’s (2000) influential ‘tend and befriend’ model of relationships among women spotlights the mutual nurturing, care-giving, and emotional support that are apparent in female relationships. These accounts suggest that, unlike nonhuman primates of both sexes and human males, women and girls do not regularly form alliances or coalitions to physically contest resources.

Informational warfare theory

A second aim of this study is to test our hypothesis that coalitions enhance not just physical formidability, but also informational competencies in reputational contests, including among women (Hess, 1999, 2006, 2017; Hess and Hagen, 2003, 2019). Collecting, analyzing, and disseminating information about the flaws and misdeeds of others can be difficult because opportunities to observe flaws and misdeeds may be infrequent; because people tend to conceal negative information about themselves, their allies and their kin; because the significance of certain pieces of information might not be immediately clear without additional contextual information and analysis; or because delivering information could require key social network links to a particular recipient. Members of one’s coalition supply more eyes and ears for collecting information about the flaws and misdeeds of competitors, more cognitive power for synthesizing, contextualizing, and analyzing this information, and more routes for disseminating it (see Hess, 2006, 2017, for a detailed discussion). If coalitions indeed improve the collection, analysis, and dissemination of reputation-relevant information, then the evolved psychology of reputational competition should be sensitive to the quality of one’s own coalition and that of one’s competitors: those with close, strong, high quality coalitions are more formidable in reputational contests than those with low quality coalitions.

Present studies

Almost all research on indirect aggression has involved either direct observation (of, e.g., children’s playground behavior), reports by teachers and peers, or self-reports (Archer and Coyne 2005). Much of the research on indirect aggression has focused on children and adolescents, though more recent research has looked at it in adults (e.g., Archer 2010; Vaillancourt & Farrell 2021). It is difficult to infer causation from observational studies, however, and the current literature is heavily biased toward school-age children and adolescents.

Here, we use vignettes and experimental and observational methods in two adult populations to test predictions from the evolutionary strategic view of competitive gossip. In both studies, rather than reporting on the gossip of others or recalling when they gossiped, the participants themselves gossip about a fictional character (Study 1) or report their perception that negative gossip will spread (Study 2). Our randomized experimental design in Study 1 will allow us to determine if theoretically relevant factors cause changes in gossip by adults.

According to results on physical competition in non-human animals, the higher value and more limited a resource is, the more competition there should be for that resource (Wheeler et al. 2013, and references therein). According to informational warfare theory, allies should deter negative gossip and increase one’s ability to harm competitors with gossip. If gossip is used strategically to increase access to contested resources, participants in Study 1 should (1) transmit gossip that is specific to the domain of the competition (e.g., competition over food might inspire negative gossip about previous food sharing but not necessarily negative gossip about fertility), transmit more negative gossip and less positive gossip about a competitor when the competed-for resource is (2) valuable and (3) scarce, and (4) gossip less negatively about a competitor who has a strategically situated ally or allies. Participants in Study 2 with high quality real-world coalitions vs. those will low quality coalitions should anticipate greater reputational harm to a fictional adversary.

The studies reported here involve participants recruited from Mechanical Turk (Study 1) and a sorority in southern California (Study 2). About 25% of the MTurk sample was from outside the US, and the sample as a whole had a wide range of ages and occupations. Although the US is Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic (WEIRD; Henrich et al. 2010), our MTurk sample was considerably more diverse than most US college samples.

There is ongoing research on the quality of data from MTurk vs. other samples, with most studies finding that data from MTurk data are equivalent or superior in quality to those collected from other popular sources (briefly reviewed in Chmielewski and Kucker, 2020). Chmielewski and Kucker (2020), however, found evidence that MTurk data quality decreased markedly around the summer of 2018. Our MTurk data, though, were collected in 2008, shortly after MTurk was launched in 2005.

A California college sorority might seem to be an exceptionally WEIRD institution, and in one sense it is: participants in our study were definitely Western, educated, and generally came from middle and upper income families (mean parental income was $105K). The sorority setting, though, is not so unusual. Same-sex peer groups are common across cultures, although more so for boys than girls. In their cross-cultural study of adolescence, Schlegal and Barry (1991) found that peer groups were often named (i.e., formalized to some degree), although this was more common for male than female groups. For adolescent boys, the peer group was more important than the family in two-thirds of cultures, and in one third the family was more important, whereas for adolescent girls these figures were reversed. Although not universal, separate adolescent dormitories for one sex or the other are (or were) widespread among traditional peoples of Africa, southern Asia, and the Pacific. In short, US college fraternities and sororities fall on the more formal end of a spectrum of adolescent peer groups that occur in a wide range of cultures.

Ethical approval

Study 1 was approved the the Washington State University Institutional Review Board (IRB). Study 2 was approved by the University of California, Santa Barbara IRB.

Data and code availability

Data and analysis code for both studies are available here: https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.4485001 and https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.4485003

Study 1: Do competitive domain, resource value, resource scarcity, and allies affect gossip?

Study 1 was a vignette-based experimental study with two phases. In each phase, participants were recruited from MTurk using identical procedures. The survey was titled “5-minute survey,” and the description was “Read a short scenario and then answer questions about it.” Participants were paid $1.00 for completions. We did not impose any qualification or other restrictions on participation other than an age of 18 years or older. We did not employ any attention checks or exclude any participants who completed the survey and met the age requirement.

Participants first read a scenario about a target individual in either a work (non-kin) or family (kin) context. Participants then read several negative and positive gossip statements about the target, and indicated how likely they would be to tell each statement to another person. In other words, participants could “gossip” about the target.

Phase I: Stimuli screening

We first aimed to establish the validity of the gossip statements that would be used to test our hypotheses in Phase II. In order to avoid potential confounds with, e.g., mating psychology, participants read scenarios with same-sexed targets. Female participants read about a female target named Elizabeth, and males read about a male target named Dave. These are the female versions of the stimuli:

Office scenario: Imagine you work in an office with about 10 co-workers, half men and half women. Your office is one division of a company that has done well in the last year. Elizabeth is one of your coworkers. Your desk is next to Elizabeth’s, so you know more about her than most other people in the company know.

Family scenario: Imagine you have an elderly aunt and 10 cousins. One of your cousins is named Elizabeth. Although you are not close with her, Elizabeth lives in your neighborhood, so you know more about her than most other family members know.

We created 10 work-related and 10 family-related gossip statements about the target in the scenario. Each statement had a negative version and a positive version, for a total of 40 statements. See Table 1 for examples, and Table S4 for the complete list of gossip statements and their mean ratings.

Table 1: Categories and female examples of the 40 gossip statements to be rated in Phase I. Each gossip statement had a matched positive and negative version. See the appendix for the complete list of gossip statements.
. Work domain (10 statements) Family domain (10 original; 7 after screening)
Positive statements Example: “Elizabeth is enthusiastic with customers at work” Example: “Elizabeth loves her siblings”
Matched negative versions 10 original; 9 after screening. Example: “Elizabeth is unenthusiastic with customers at work” Example: “Elizabeth hates her siblings”

We then recruited N=131 participants from MTurk. One person provided demographic information but did not answer any questions, and was therefore removed from the data, leaving N=130 participants. Ages ranged from 18-62 (M=33), with 87 women and 43 men. Approximately 77% were US nationals. Participants were randomized into the office scenario (N=65) or family scenario (N=65). Participants were then randomly assigned either the positive or negative version of each gossip statement (20 statements per participant). After reading the scenario, participants rated whether each gossip statement reflected negatively or positively on the target on a Likert scale (1 = Reflects very negatively on the competitor, 5 = Neutral, 9 = Reflects very positively on the competitor).

For all gossip statements, the mean rating for the positive version was ≥ 5 (M = 7, SD = 0.73, range: 5 – 8.1), and the mean rating for the negative version was < 5 (M = 3.3, SD = 0.67, range: 1.8 – 4.7), confirming that, on average, positive statements were seen as positive, and negative statements as negative. When examined in the context of the family scenario, however, both positive and negative versions of one statement (“Elizabeth goes out to bars one night a month” vs. “Elizabeth goes out to bars every Friday and Saturday night”) were seen as negative, so we did not use this statement in Phase II.

In addition, we required that positive and negative versions of work-specific gossip statements reflected more positively or negatively on workers than family members, and that positive and negative versions of family-specific gossip statements reflected more positively or negatively on family members than workers. Two statements failed this test, so the positive and negative versions were omitted from analyses in Phase II of this study.

One additional pair of statements, regarding good taste in art and literature, was, in both positive and negative forms, slightly more important for coworkers than family members, although we had predicted the opposite. However, the family scenario in Phase II involved inheritance of a valuable painting, so instead of deleting this statement we retained it as a separate variable.

Phase II Methods and Predictions

Table 2: Experimental conditions in Study 1, Phase II. Sample sizes and values of manipulated variables for each of the nine conditions. Each participant was randomized into one of these conditions.
Condition N Scenario Promotions Resource Ally_location Allies Hypotheses
0 67 office 1 small neighborhood 1 Resource size
1 67 office 1 large neighborhood 1 Resource size, Scarcity, Allies
2 68 office 1 large neighborhood 2 Allies
3 67 office 1 large office 1 Allies, Ally vs. no ally
4 67 office 1 large office 2 Allies
5 68 office 3 large neighborhood 1 Scarcity
6 66 office 5 large neighborhood 1 Scarcity
7 64 office 1 large 0 Domain specificity, Ally vs. no ally
8 66 family large 0 Domain specificity

Participants first read a short vignette about Elizabeth (Dave) that described her (him) as a competitor for a valuable resource, which in the office scenario involved competition over a promotion, and in the family scenario involved competition over a valuable painting (female versions only):

Office scenario: “Imagine you work in an office with about 10 co-workers, half men and half women. Your office is one division of a company that has done well in the last year. The company has authorized your office supervisor to promote one person in the office, and you are a candidate. The promotion comes with a large pay raise. Elizabeth, a co-worker, is also a candidate for promotion. Your desk is next to Elizabeth’s, so you know more about her than most other people in the company know.”

Family scenario: “Imagine you have an elderly aunt who owns a very valuable painting. You have loved this painting since you were a child. Your aunt is moving into a retirement community, and she has said that she intends to give the painting to one of her 10 nieces and nephews. Elizabeth, one of your cousins, thinks she deserves the painting. Although you are not close with her, Elizabeth lives in your neighborhood, so you know more about her than most other family members know.”

Participants then read gossip statements from Phase I about Elizabeth (Dave) in a random sequence, with random assignment to either the negative or positive version of each statement. These statements were described as known to be true. We then asked participants to “gossip” about her (him) by rating their likelihood of transmitting each gossip statement to another person in the [office/family] using a nine-point Likert scale (1 = Very unlikely to tell, 5 = Might tell, and 9 = Very likely to tell).

We computed the positive and negative gossip scores separately for office-related and family-related gossip, for a total of four scores: positive office gossip score, negative office gossip score, positive family gossip score, and negative family gossip score. For all scores, higher values indicated a greater likelihood of transmitting the gossip. In both vignette conditions participants reported significantly more office-related gossip than family-related gossip. We addressed this problem by converting each of our four gossip scores to Z-scores. The outcome variables were thus participants’ mean tendency to relay the four types of gossip statements about Elizabeth (Dave) to another person, in Z-score units.

Some analyses required data in “long” format, with one row per gossip type per participant (i.e., four rows per participant). In this version of the data, there was a Gossip Z-score outcome variable, a binary Valence variable to indicate positive or negative gossip, a binary Domain variable to indicate if the gossip was in the office or family domain, and a binary Scenario variable to indicate if the participant was randomized into the office or family vignette condition.

To maximize power in experimental designs, it is important to control for extraneous sources of variation (Bausell & Li 2002). Our prior experience with vignette studies of gossip indicated that the perceived friendliness and aggressiveness of the gossip target were strongly correlated with a tendency to report positive and negative gossip about them, respectively. In addition, these factors were potential confounds in our tests of the effects of allies on negative and positive gossip (because having a friend could change perceived friendliness or aggressiveness). We therefore included two items in our survey assessing the perceived Friendliness and Aggressiveness of Elizabeth (Dave) to use as controls in our linear models. Friendliness and Aggressiveness had only a small, though significant, degree of correlation (r = -0.11, p = 0.007), indicating these were largely independent dimensions of the competitor. For testing the protective effect of a friend against gossip, we included a measure of the physical threat posed by the competitor as a control variable in that condition as well. The three control variables were converted to Z-scores prior to inclusion in regression models. As a sensitivity analysis, we also fit versions of all linear models without these controls (see SI).

If a prediction was not supported, we conducted exploratory analyses to determine if the outcome depended on the age or sex of participants. All statistical analyses were performed using R version 3.6.3 (2020-02-29). We tested our predictions using either t-tests or linear regression models. For analyses of data in long format, we fit linear mixed effects models using the lme4 package (Bates et al. 2015), with a random intercept for participant. Marginal means and effect sizes were estimated using the emmeans package (Lenth 2020). For summary statistics of variables in Phase II, see Table 3.

Table 3: Summary statistics for Study 1 phase I and II, and Study 2. All values are reported on the original scale (values were converted to Z-scores for all analyses).
Variable N Range Mean (SD)
Age 600 18-89 34 (11)
Positive office gossip score 599 1-9 5.6 (2)
Negative office gossip score 599 1-9 5.6 (1.9)
Positive family gossip score 597 1-9 3.7 (1.9)
Negative family gossip score 597 1-9 3.4 (1.9)
Good taste gossip score 325 1-9 5.1 (2.4)
Bad taste gossip score 275 1-9 3 (2.2)
Perceived friendliness of competitor 600 1-9 5.8 (1.6)
Perceived aggressiveness of competitor 599 1-9 4.6 (2)
Likelihood that competitor would physically attack 600 1-9 3 (2)
Likelihood that competitor’s reputation would suffer 74 12-80 45 (14)
Participant’s closeness to four sorority friends 74 17-40 32 (4.6)
Closeness among the four sorority friends 74 13-59 39 (9.9)

Prediction 1 methods: Competitive gossip is domain-specific

If gossip functions to reduce a competitor’s reputation, and thus their access to contestable resources, then the gossip content should target dimensions of reputation most relevant to the particular competitive social context. We predicted that in the office condition, participants would relay more office-relevant gossip than they did in the family scenario, and in the family condition they would rely more family-relevant gossip than they would in the office scenario.

To test this hypothesis, 64 participants read the office scenario and 66 read the family scenario. We then fit a linear model of the likelihood of transmitting gossip as a function of the two Domains of gossip (Family and Work), the two Valences (Positive gossip and Negative gossip), and the two gossip Scenarios (Family vs. Office), and their interactions.

Because negative gossip is hypothesized to be a competitive strategy, and because both scenarios involved competition over a valuable resource (a promotion and valuable artwork), we also predicted a more substantial shift in negative gossip scores relative to positive gossip scores for statements whose content matched their competitive environment. To test this hypothesis, we first created a binary Match variable to indicate if the gossip type matched the scenario (family gossip in the family scenario and work gossip in the office scenario) or mismatched (family gossip in the office scenario, and work gossip in the family scenario). We then fit a linear model of likelihood to transmit gossip as a function of Match, Valence, and their interaction.

Finally, because the dispute in the family scenario involved inheritance of a valuable painting, we also explored if, for the gossip statement involving taste in art and literature, there would be a greater tendency to relate negative gossip, and a reduced tendency to relate positive gossip, in the family vs. office scenario (because the family scenario involved the disposition of a valuable painting).

Prediction 1 results: Gossip is domain-specific

As predicted, gossip scores were substantially family-biased in the family scenario and office-biased in the office scenario. See Figure 1 and Table S5. The effect size (Cohen’s d) for the increase in family gossip in the family condition vs. the office condition was d = 1.1 (0.77-1.43), and for the increase in work gossip in the office condition vs. the family condition, d = 0.88 (1.22-0.55).