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Utilities of gossip across organizational levels

Multilevel selection, free-riders, and teams

Abstract

Gossip is a subject that has been studied by researchers from an array of disciplines with various foci and methods. We measured the content of language use by members of a competitive sports team across 18 months, integrating qualitative ethnographic methods with quantitative sampling and analysis. We hypothesized that the use of gossip will vary significantly depending on whether it is used for self-serving or group-serving purposes. Our results support a model of gossip derived from multilevel selection theory that expects gossip to serve group-beneficial rules when rewards are partitioned at the group level on a scale that permits mutual monitoring. We integrate our case study with earlier studies of gossip conducted by anthropologists, psychologists, and management researchers.

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Correspondence to Kevin M. Kniffin.

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Kevin M. Kniffin studies cooperation within and among organizations. Kniffin is presently an Honorary Fellow of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Department of Anthropology. Kniffin has consulted for a variety of clients, including community-development organizations, labor unions, and credit unions.

David Sloan Wilson is an evolutionary biologist interested in a broad range of issues relevant to human behavior. He has authored numerous articles and books, including most recently Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society (University of Chicago Press, 2002). Wilson is a professor of biological sciences and anthropology and Director of Evolutionary Studies (EvoS) at SUNY-Binghamton.

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Kniffin, K.M., Wilson, D.S. Utilities of gossip across organizational levels. Hum Nat 16, 278–292 (2005). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12110-005-1011-6

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s12110-005-1011-6

Key words

  • Gossip
  • Multilevel selection theory
  • Organizational behavior
  • Organizational levels
  • Social control