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Exchanging gossip is a ubiquitous and complex human behavior, yet its precise social function remains poorly understood. Prior work has focused on characterizing its role in increasing cooperation through social sanctioning. However, gossip has been theorized to have a more fundamental role in social life. Here we provide empirical evidence that gossip plays a critical role in vicarious learning and social bonding. First, we establish the conditions under which individuals spontaneously engage in gossip, and demonstrate that gossip promotes the rapid spread of information about others’ unobserved actions, which causally influences future behavior. Second, we demonstrate that gossip facilitates the formation of social connections between individuals. Conversants feel more positively towards each other relative to other individuals, influence each other’s future behavior, and align social impressions. These results directly contradict the commonly held view that gossip is primarily defamatory in nature, and instead demonstrate that gossip can provide a rich source of information to aid in navigating the social world that ultimately leads to more cooperative interactions by providing a mechanism to quickly forge social connections.
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