The 2021 study presents a mathematical model of how people use gossip to further their own self-interest

Research exploring honesty in gossip is winner of Ig Nobel Peace Prize

An Exeter academic's paper on the subject of gossip has been awarded the 2022 Ig Nobel Peace Prize.

Kim Peters, a Professor in Human Resource Management at the University of Exeter Business School, was among a team of researchers awarded the Ig Nobel Peace Prize for the paper ‘Honesty and dishonesty in gossip strategies: a fitness interdependence analysis’, a peer-reviewed study published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. 

The Ig Nobels, intended as an alternative to the Nobel Prizes, aim to ‘celebrate the unusual’ and ‘honour the imaginative’.

The annual prizes have been presented for over 30 years and are handed out by the science humour magazine Annals of Improbable Research.

The 2021 study presents a mathematical model of how people use gossip – whether truthfully or dishonestly – to further their own self-interest.

“As a team we’re really thrilled, anything that draws attention to the work we’re doing is wonderful and really gratifying, and I think the awards themselves are fantastic as they’re about work that gives insights that you weren’t looking for but are none the less interesting,” said Professor Peters, an Associate Professor of Management at the University of Exeter Business School.

The study looks at the relationship between gossiping individuals and the target of their gossip, as well as those at the receiving end of the gossip (the audience), with the purpose of helping people decide whether to trust gossip or not.

It finds that a gossiper’s self-interest is maximised by ensuring friends get ahead and enemies flounder, something that can be achieved through fair means or foul – so while we may want to say nice things about those we care about and negative things about those we dislike, if this can’t be done honestly, lying will serve the same purpose.

After developing formal models to provide the theoretical foundation for individuals’ gossip strategies, the researchers found that people want to give good advice to those they care about and bad advice to those they dislike, and when there’s a conflict, such as talking to a friend about another friend who has behaved badly, gossipers put their own self-interest first by helping whoever they care about the most, either by telling the truth or lying.

“We were at first a bit surprised as to why they chose us,” Professor Peters admitted, “and it was only when we were awarded the prize and they said that the paper ‘develops strategies for people to know when they should tell the truth and know when they should lie’ that we finally got it – though it’s definitely a very tongue-in-cheek interpretation of our paper!”

The 32nd Ig Nobel Prize ceremony took place on Thursday 15 September online.

Honesty and dishonesty in gossip strategies: a fitness interdependence analysis’ is published in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. 

Date: 21 September 2022

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