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Word on the street: ASU alumnus receives Ig Nobel Prize for research about gossip

Portrait of TU/e researcher Leo Tiokhin, an ASU alum and a postdoc at the Department of Industrial Engineering & Innovation Sciences. Tiokhin has short dark hair and facial hair. He wears a dark grey blazer and light grey T-shirt and smiles at the camera.

Leo Tiokhin, postdoc at the Department of Industrial Engineering and Innovation Sciences at TU/e.

September 26, 2022

When should you gossip about lies and when should you gossip about the truth? Well, there’s an algorithm to help you decide, and an Arizona State University alumnus was part of a team that developed it. 

Recently, ASU alumnus Leo Tiokhin and a team of scientists across the world received an Ig Nobel Prize in the "peace" category for their research on gossip. The researchers developed an algorithm to determine when gossipers should lie and when they should tell the truth.

The paper, “Honesty and dishonesty in gossip strategies: a fitness interdependence analysis,” was published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, Biological Sciences in 2021.

As described on the Ig Nobel website, “The Ig Nobel Prizes honor achievements that make people laugh, then think. The prizes are intended to celebrate the unusual, honor the imaginative — and spur people’s interest in science, medicine and technology.”

Tiokhin received his PhD in anthropology from ASU's School of Human Evolution and Social Change in 2018. His research focused on metascience — the study of the scientific process itself. Tiokhin is currently a postdoc at the department of Industrial Engineering and Innovation Sciences at TU/e, Eindhoven University of Technology, in the Netherlands. 

Tiokhin spoke with ASU News about his research and receiving the Ig Nobel award.

Question: What inspired this research on gossip? 

Answer: People’s first reaction to hearing the term “gossip” is that it is something negative. However, gossip ­— defined as sharing information about absent others — plays an important role in promoting cooperation and group functioning. People gossip all of the time. Gossip about someone’s good deeds can earn them respect, promotions and so on, whereas gossip about someone’s bad behavior can cause them to be a pariah and ruin their lives.  

We all worry about our reputations and about whether co-workers — or friends, or anyone in our social group — are speaking positively or negatively about us. Our research sheds light on the situations in which people will be most likely to spread honest or dishonest gossip.

Q: What did your group learn about the different types of gossip in this study, and is that gossip helpful or harmful?

A: Gossip isn’t inherently helpful or harmful, and whether or not someone will spread honest or dishonest gossip depends on how much they care about what happens to both the recipient of the gossip and the person being gossiped about. 

One of the most interesting insights, based on the assumptions of our model, is that gossipers can use a simple "matching rule" to decide whether to be honest or dishonest. If there is a strong match between the effect of gossip and how much gossipers value the recipient and target, gossipers should be honest. On the other hand, if there is a strong mismatch between the effect of gossip and how much gossipers value the recipient and the target, gossipers should be dishonest. 

For example, in situations of competition — such as competing with a co-worker for a promotion — there is a conflict between people’s interests. These situations should lead to dishonest gossip to harm the other person, or honest gossip when the gossip content is negative.

Q: Why is it exciting to receive the Ig Nobel Prize?

A: What I like about the Ig Nobel Prize is that it recognizes research that is somewhat “out of the box” but which addresses interesting questions. 

For example, this year the physics prize went to a team that researched why ducklings swim in a line formation. It turns out that ducklings “surf” the wave generated by their mother, which helps them to conserve energy. Pretty cool!

Other Ig Nobel winners have included archaeologists who experimentally demonstrated that knives made from human feces don’t work, an analysis of the species of bacteria that live in discarded chewing gum and a study that used magnets to levitate a frog, whose author went on to win a Nobel Prize.

Q: Why does your paper fall under the “peace” category when your paper is talking about gossip?

A: Gossip can play an important role in both sustaining and eroding cooperation. That is, gossip can both promote peace and cause conflict. Our research sheds light on how gossip works and provides a framework for thinking about how to promote peaceful relations among people in society

Q: Tell us about your time at Arizona State University and where you are now.

A: When I began my PhD in anthropology, I was interested in understanding when people honestly or dishonestly transmit information. I was also interested in evolutionary approaches to human health. My master’s research combined these interests by developing a novel perspective on symptoms of illness, analyzing how and when symptoms serve as social signals. I was spending most of my time reading about problems in science and thinking about how to fix them. This led me to switch my PhD topic to metascience, that is, research on research. I continued along this path as a postdoc at TU/e (Eindhoven University of Technology).

Q: How has anthropology played a role in your career as a metascientist?

A: Anthropology has taught me diverse research methods — including field research, lab experimentation, modeling and statistics — has helped me to understand human origins and our evolved predispositions, and has given me the skills to collaborate with and manage teams of people from diverse cultural backgrounds. I’m grateful for my anthropological training and especially for having been at (the School of Human Evolution and Social Change) for my PhD. There are few other institutes in the world where I could have received such an education and benefited from the guidance of so many inspiring scholars.

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