Gossip is believed to be an informal device that alleviates the problem of cooperation in humans. Communication about previous acts and passing on reputational information could be valuable for conditional action in cooperation problems and pose a punishment threat to defectors.
It is an open question, however, what kind of mechanisms can make gossip honest and credible and reputational information reliable, especially if intense competition for reputations does not exclusively dictate passing on honest information. We propose two mechanisms that could support the honesty and credibility of gossip under such a conflict of interest. One is the possibility of voluntary checks of received evaluative information from different sources and the other is social bonding between the sender and the receiver. We tested the efficiency of cross-checking and social bonding in a laboratory experiment where subjects played the Prisoner’s Dilemma with gossip interactions. Although individuals had confidence in gossip in both conditions, we found that, overall, neither the opportunities for cross-checking nor bonding were able to maintain cooperation. Meanwhile, strong competition for reputation increased cooperation when individuals’ payoffs depended greatly on their position relative to their rivals. Our results suggest that intense competition for reputation facilitates gossip functioning as an informal device promoting cooperation.
This article is part of the theme issue ‘The language of cooperation: reputation and honest signalling’.