Word of Mouth: What Makes Us Gossip?

Arousal increases our tendency to share information with others

Posted Aug 17, 2011

We all do it. We share stories with others, gossip about a co-worker at the office, and tweet articles we find on-line to friends and family. But, what drives people to share, and why is some information shared more than others?

Jonah Berger, a Marketing Professor at U Penn's Wharton School has found the answer. In a paper  published a few weeks ago in the journal Psychological Science, Berger reveals arousal has a lot to do with it. Simply put, when we are physiologically aroused we are more likely to share information with those around us.

Physiological arousal is defined as activation of the autonomic nervous system, which affects bodily functions such as heart rate and perspiration - think sweaty palms and a beating heart. As it happens, arousal, whether stemming from the content of the information we are sharing or another source all together, boosts the social transmission of information.

To show how arousal impacts information sharing, Berger conducted two studies. In a first study, people watched videos that were designed to elicit either high or low arousal in the watchers. Everyone then performed a second, ostensibly unrelated task, in which they read an article that was emotionally neutral in nature and rated how willing they would be to share the article with friends, family, and co-workers. What Berger found was that people were more likely to share information after watching high as compared to low arousing videos.

Importantly, the videos people watched were mixed in terms of their emotional valence. Some folks watched highly arousing videos that were of a positive nature (amusing) and some watched negative valence videos (e.g., depicting anxiety). This was true for the low arousing videos as well. Some were positive and some were negative (e.g., contentment vs. sadness). Because Berger found that the emotion of the video didn't matter, only whether it was highly arousing or not, his findings point to arousal as the driving factor behind information transfer.

In a second study, people either jogged in place for a minute or sat still - the former known to increase physiological arousal. Everyone then read a news article on-line and were told they could email it to anyone they wanted. He found that 75% of the people who jogged in place emailed the article to others compared to those only 33% of those who sat still.

The take away? Situations that increase arousal spark information sharing, regardless of whether they are positive (an inauguration) or negative (panics) in nature. And, interestingly, even incidental arousal - arousal unrelated to the content of the information being communicated - can spill over and boost sharing. What this means is that important information, say public health information, may spread more effectively if it evokes anxiety relative to sadness. It also means that stopping to chat with your neighbor after an intensive run may not be a good way to keep gossip under wraps. As it happens, our arousal has a lot to do with what we talk about and why.

For more on how the body impacts the mind, check out my book Choke!

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Berger, J. (2011). Arousal increases the social transmission of information. Psychological Science.