The Theology of Everyday Life: Is Gossip a Sin?, Part 3, "Making the World a Better Place Through Gossip"

In this post, as promised, I'm going to make the claim that gossip makes the world a better place. So, get out there and do your part!

(But let me clarify that in these early posts I'm not yet offering a Biblical analysis of gossip. I'm offering a social scientific analysis which is generally pro-gossip. Right now I'm simply marshaling all these pro-gossip perspectives before engaging the Biblical witness, which is anti-gossip. It is my hope that this clash of perspectives on gossip will prove theologically interesting.)

First, some reading. The scientific backbone on this analysis is borrowed from Martin Nowak's and Karl Sigmund's work in this area. See their 2005 paper in the journal Nature on the Evolution of indirect reciprocity.

Okay, then, how does gossip make the world a better place?

First, we have to discuss generalized (or indirect) reciprocity. Simple (or direct) reciprocity is between two individuals and is generally captured by "you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours." This mutual cooperation benefits both parties. But in larger, more anonymous societies we need more than simple reciprocity. We need generalized reciprocity: You help me and I'll help someone else. In popular culture, we know this as the "pay it forward" idea. That is, when we receive help, aid, or assistance from someone we are to "pay it forward" by helping someone else. The idea is that, in a larger anonymous society, we rarely get the chance to help the person who helped us. So, we pay it forward. And we hope that the person we helped also pays it forward. And so on. When generalized reciprocity becomes the behavioral norm in a society you have a pretty great world. A "pay it forward world." My personal favorite example of this is the Pay It Forward commercial produced by the Red Cross. You can see it on YouTube here. Finally, as further evidence of the importance of generalized reciprocity, a decline in generalized reciprocity is often cited as a major social problem in America today. See Robert Putnam's analysis in Bowling Alone : The Collapse and Revival of American Community.

Okay, so we want and strive for creating a "pay it forward world." A world of generalized reciprocity.

Nowak and Sigmund's work is of interest to this discussion in that they have done game-theoretic work to explore the conditions for both creating and maintaining generalized reciprocity in society. Their work is, as most work in game theory is, mathematical and formal. But game theory is helpful in exposing to view underlying social dynamics. The models may be oversimplified, but the resultant insights are often explanatory and powerful.

To summarize to the point of distortion, Nowak and Sigmund suggest that two things are necessary for generalized reciprocity to both emerge and persist. First, you need gossip, a sharing of social information among the group. Specifically, you need to know how people are behaving in the "pay it forward world." Are they paying it forward? Are they cooperating with the group? Or, are they taking advantage? Reaping favors and aid without giving aid or assistance in return? That is, are they free riding on the system?

Second, you need reputation. Nowak and Sigmund call this a "social score." When you pay it forward your social scores goes up within the gossiping community. When you defect on your neighbors, your social score goes down.

Let's pause here and talk about the Biblical witness about reputation. In many places, both in the OT and NT, Christians and Christian leaders are encouraged to foster a good reputation in the larger society. They are to be of "good repute." Also, we see the boy Jesus growing not only in favor with God but also in "favor with man." I point this out to say that gossip and reputation go hand in hand. Reputation does no good if no social information is flowing. So I find it interesting that the Bible prohibits gossip but encourages the development of a good reputation. For reputation presupposes a backdrop of gossip. That doesn't mean that gossip isn't a sin. It just seems to imply, for me at least, that gossip does have some value to the Christian community.

Back to generalized reciprocity. One of the things I take away from Nowak and Sigmund's work is that, if people refuse to share social information or ignore a person's social score, generalized reciprocity collapses. Why? Recall my prior post on evolutionary stable strategies. If people in a population play the I-Will-Not-Gossip and I-Will-Ignore-Your-Social-Score Strategy then that strategy, like the Dove strategy in my prior post, is subject to invasion by free riders. And the invasion of free riders causes generalized reciprocity to collapse. In short, the I-Will-Not-Gossip and I-Will-Ignore-Your-Social-Score Strategy is not evolutionarily stable. However, the I-Will-Gossip and I-Will-Consider-Your-Social-Score Strategy is evolutionarily stable in that it fends off the free rider. If everyone knows you are a free rider and is hesitant to help you because of this, well, the "pay it forward world" both protects itself and flourishes. That is, the free rider, to do well in this world, will need to attend to his social score, his reputation. And the easiest way to garner a good, stable reputation is to actually be a good pay it forward person. In the end, we have this: Gossip produces this better world by encouraging and enforcing generalized reciprocity. Without gossip the pay it forward world collapses.

In the end, there is a tension here for the Christian. The tension involves our local responsibilities when extending aid to a free rider and our global responsibilities to foster a pay it forward world. In helping the free rider I may feel that my local, personal actions are virtuous. But those actions are, in effect, a refusal to help the larger community which wants to create a pay it forward world, a world we all feel is a better place.

Thus, on the one hand we are called to help everyone, regardless of their social score. That means helping free riders. But Christians of my acquaintance are ambivalent about this. As am I. Do you help people who you know are going to take advantage of you or someone else? Yes, you appear to be doing good in the short run. But are you not harming both this person and the larger society in the long run? Where is the true calling of love here? Relevant to this post, by refusing to gossip, refusing to discern a person's social score, are you not just closing your eyes to these larger problems and abdicating your social responsibility? Are you not just trading a sin of commission for a sin of omission?

I don't have answers to these questions. I'm just doing what I do in this blog: Exploring the borderlands between the social sciences and theology. I find the landscape of this borderland fascinating to behold.

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2 thoughts on “The Theology of Everyday Life: Is Gossip a Sin?, Part 3, "Making the World a Better Place Through Gossip"”

  1. When I think of "Free riders", this comes to mind...

    2 Thes 3:6-15
    In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers, to keep away from every brother who is idle and does not live according to the teaching you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example. We were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone's food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you. We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to make ourselves a model for you to follow. For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: "If a man will not work, he shall not eat." We hear that some among you are idle. They are not busy; they are busybodies. Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the bread they eat. And as for you, brothers, never tire of doing what is right. If anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take special note of him. Do not associate with him, in order that he may feel ashamed. Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.

  2. Great series! I love it and have been thinking similar thoughts of my own.

    NB the link to the red cross video doesn't work.

    Generalised reciprocity is how blogging works too.

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