Gossiping is a serious business because it helps us keep track of who to trust and who to avoid. To count as proper gossip, you have to give or receive new information about a third-party. That’s effectively what’s happening when a friend begins a sentence: “You wouldn’t believe what [insert name] did the other day …” – their anecdote is giving you precious information about the reputations of the people involved. Just how early in life do we start gossiping? A new study in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology shows that in its simplest form – telling someone else who to trust – gossiping is well on its way at age three.
Jan Engelmann and her colleagues recruited 24 three-year-olds and 24 five-year-olds to play the same simple game with two puppets. The game involved putting tokens down a tube so they were delivered to the puppet located on the other side of a partition. On his go, the puppet delivered tokens back through a second tube to the participant. The only rule was that on each of their three turns, each player must deliver at least four tokens to his or her partner. The children were told that if they had enough tokens at the end of the exercise, they would get a prize. Crucially, one puppet was consistently meaner than the other regarding how many tokens he delivered on his turns.
As each child arrived for the experiment, he or she was paired with a second child who was trained by and assisting the researchers. The procedure was fixed so the participant always played first. After he or she had played both puppets at the game, it was announced that there was only enough time for the other child to play one of the puppets. This was the critical point in the experiment – the researchers wanted to see whether each child participant would advise the other child about which puppet to play, and whether – and to count as proper gossip – they’d include their reasons such as “you should play the green puppet because he is more generous“. Also, they wanted to know whether he or she would offer any advice or gossip readily or if they’d need a lot of prompting from the other child.
The three-year-olds and the five-year-olds were quick to provide basic advice about which puppet the other child should play. However, whereas only a few three-year-olds gossiped in the sense of providing reasons for their advice, this behaviour was much more common among the five-year-olds, with nearly half of them gossiping. It’s worth noting, though, that according to criteria that are often used in gossiping research in adults, the three-year-olds were gossiping simply through providing advice on which puppet to play with.
The researchers speculated that part of the reason that the three-year-olds rarely gave reasons for their advice was simply that they find it difficult to come up with justifications. A second, similar experiment that involved children playing the token game with two machines (one mean, one generous) supported this idea – again, three-year-olds mostly didn’t give reasons to justify their advice about which machine to play with, suggesting this is a problem more to do with their cognitive abilities, rather than their social motivations.
We already know that from a very young age, children keep track of whether you owe them a favour, who they should trust, and that they care about their own reputations. This new research adds to the evidence showing the surprising social sophistication of little people. “Already at preschool age children spontaneously gossip and offer helpful reputational information,” the researchers said.