Secrets Do Make Friends

Psychologist Luke Chang ’02 spills the beans about the hidden power of gossip.

By Ben Read ’21 | December 10, 2021

Gossip enjoys a reputation that, is shall we say, less than savory. From the tidbits of Tacitus to the scandal sheets of the Victorian era to anonymous apps like Yik Yak, gossip has been used to spread disinformation, undermine enemies, and perpetuate stereotypes. But gossip is more than trash talk, according to Dartmouth psychologist Luke Chang ’02. This ubiquitous behavior can also be prosocial, promoting vicarious learning and strengthening social connection.

Gossip is an easy way to find people who are like you or share your worldview, Chang says. This can lead to what psychologists call groupthink or what sociologists call homophily—in which you find yourself exchanging opinions and beliefs with people who already think the way you do. “Bias propagates,” he says.

But gossip is also a way of keeping up to date on each other’s lives and learning about our networks. Gossip helps us stay connected to our coworkers, our friends, and our family, and it can even help groups of people organize. Gossip can also help us form new relationships through the trust built from disclosing information.

Chang, an associate professor of psychological and brain sciences at Dartmouth, studies altruistic behavior—why people sometimes do good things, even when it’s not in their own interest. Gossip is one piece of the puzzle. “People talk,” he says.  That back channel shapes perceptions of reputation, trustworthiness, and social dynamics—subjects that many psychologists have considered too difficult to study. Which is exactly what drew Chang to the field in the first place. “I like topics that are really interesting to think about and work on, but that a lot of people don’t think you can study scientifically,” he says.

Chang and his collaborator Eshin Jolly designed a new experimental paradigm by adapting a “public goods” game—a model typically used in behavioral economics—to see how gossip would affect participants’ decisions to contribute to the public good.

In a public goods game, each participant begins with a certain amount of wealth. They can then decide whether to contribute a portion of this wealth to the collective pot, which is then multiplied and divided among all participants evenly. Everyone eats. However, if a participant hoards their wealth, they will still receive their share of the pot, incentivizing selfish behavior—at the expense of the common good.

In a traditional paradigm, cooperation between participants tends to unravel after a few rounds. But the advent of gossip can transform the social dynamic. Chang and Jolly created an experimental condition in which participants in a six-person group could view their neighbors’ actions and communicate with other participants who could view their neighbors’ actions. In this condition, gossip prevented the game from devolving into selfish hoarding. Instead, participants developed connections to their neighbors and acquired knowledge about other players that was impossible to observe directly. Writing in the journal Current Biology, the authors concluded that “social information acquired through gossip aids in vicarious learning, directly influencing future behavior and impression formation.”

For Chang, this demonstrated how we learn what is socially acceptable and how to be a part of a community. Gossip can “prevent the unraveling,” he says.

The experiment made headlines around the globe, from the New York Times to the South China Morning Post. Which Chang finds more than somewhat ironic. As a student at Reed, he sometimes struggled. “I think everybody, including me, was surprised that I ended up as a professor in psychology.”

The lights went on when he took Psych 101, Foundations in Psychological Science. He loved the course—especially the labs—and went on to take a course on learning and memory with Prof. Allen Neuringer [psych 1970–2008] where he used a Skinner box to train rats to exhibit random or creative behavior.

“To be able to do that, and really test ideas, is a completely different way to learn about psychology than memorizing a bunch of facts,” he says. Since he graduated, Chang has been a student or an instructor at the University of Arizona, UCLA, the New School, and Dartmouth. “Some of the classes I took as a psych major at Reed, I think, are among the best,” he insists.

But it was his senior thesis that truly launched his career. Working with Prof. Jennifer Corpus, he explored the relationship between academic dishonesty and intrinsic and extrinsic motivation—in other words, whether students are less likely to cheat if they care more about their learning than their grades. In the course of this project, he discovered his own passion for research—the same motivation that drives him today. “And that’s kind of what Reed’s all about,” he said.

At Dartmouth, his lab is working on everything from mapping emotions in the brain to what researchers call a socially transmitted placebo: the way that doctors’ beliefs about a treatment affect patients’ outcomes. His work combines psychology, economics, computer science, and cognitive neuroscience—an interdisciplinary approach that he values about a liberal arts education.

“A lot of different disciplines are working on similar problems but from different perspectives,” he says. “And they have the tools and theory that can help you if you combine it in different ways. The more I interact with other fields and read other things, the more ideas I come up with, and the more ways I think about solving problems. Everybody thinks I’m becoming more original but really I’m just stealing ideas or borrowing things from other fields.”

Chang’s best bit of gossip? He married his TA, Eunice Lee ’00. As a first-year student at Reed, he ended up as a participant in her thesis experiment. Years later, the two met again in a master’s program for psychology. The rest, as they say, is history.

Tags: Alumni, Life Beyond Reed