Friday, January 23, 2015


Is gossip euvoluntary? Gossip raises or lowers someone's relative social status without their knowledge or consent.

Gossip is dang close to ubiquitous among humans. It certainly predates civilization (pre-writing cultures in the Amazon Basin and on Papua New Guinea gossip just as much as your nosy Aunt Gertrude) and it definitely happens in early childhood.

The just-so story of atavistic gossip is something like this: subsistence foragers desperately needed to know whom to trust. Successful bands developed keen senses for when (and how) to communicate important social information relatively error-free. Gossip emerged from the selection process, together with all the attendant hedging (admissions of third-hand sourcing, "I heard", &c) and clear signals that the speaker is gossiping rather than doing some other sort of talk.

Q: do all the tacit norms surrounding gossip help keep it euvoluntary? I think folks understand that the problem isn't so much with the gossip as with the behavior that triggers it. And as long as everyone's in on what gossip is, what it means, and how (un)reliable it is, is it really a problem?

Ignoring for the moment that it's utterly impractical to attempt to curb gossip, I don't think anyone really wants to ban it. Sure, you'll hear folks in leadership positions urge people to exercise restraint, but very rarely do you find any sincere attempts outside of, say, military basic training to quash gossip.

Hm. Maybe if we thought about prices more like we think about gossip we wouldn't get so bent out of shape every time we think the rent is too damn high. Maybe what those prices are doing is hen-clucking around the water cooler about the relative value of that apartment.


  1. So over to the right of the screen are six conditions for exchange to be euvoluntary. Is gossip intended to be seen as an exchange, so these six conditions would have to apply to answer your opening question in the affirmative? Or is it not exchange and you have a different set of conditions?

    1. In particular, if your gossip reduces my reputation, and I face costs because of my lower reputation, is that an "uncompensated externality"?

    2. Yes. For the object of the gossip, it's an uncompensated externality.


Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?