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

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. 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. Download Full Image

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.

Nicole Pomerantz

Communications specialist, School of Human Evolution and Social Change


Lincoln Scholar spotlight: On family, leadership and being a woman in tech

September 26, 2022

Arizona State University senior Alexis DeVries has had a passion for leadership and technology since her freshman year.

“I fell in love with working in teams to create projects from scratch that create change in the community,” said DeVries, a student at the W. P. Carey School of Business. Portrait of ASU student Alexis DeVries. Alexis DeVries is a senior in the W. P. Carey School of Business at ASU. Download Full Image

Now, DeVries is putting that passion to work as one of the newest Lincoln Scholars at ASU's Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics. The scholar program engages students in ethics discussions and activities with faculty and community members.

An advocate for gender and racial equality in STEM fields, DeVries has defined her time at ASU and beyond through service and leadership, participating in Greek life, the Hispanic Business Students Association, the Department of Information Systems Club (DISC) and much more.

DeVries spoke with ASU News about the passions that drive her, how the Lincoln Scholars program has helped her pursue those passions and what’s on the horizon after graduation.

Editor’s note: The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Question: Tell us about your experience as a student at ASU.

Answer: I am a double major in computer information systems and management at Arizona State University, and I will be graduating with honors in May of 2023. In addition to maintaining a 3.7 GPA in a challenging academic program, I have completed several computing internship projects. For example, my experience as a Microsoft Ambassador required me to have excellent skills in the Microsoft Office suite, gather/analyze/groom user requirements, and utilize various coding techniques to create solutions to business problems. I also gained experience as a software developer for the Social Impact Project with the Phoenix Ivy Council.  Using my knowledge of Java Scripting, HTML/CSS, P5, Visual Studio and GitHub, I designed immersive video game experiences targeted to the needs of the special education and adult disability community.

Q: What are you most passionate about in your studies?

A: Being a woman in tech has come with its own challenges. I have been placed in group projects with all male students, who often silence me in meetings when I try to share my ideas or who edit out my work in research essays. I knew I had every right to contribute as much as they did, and I wouldn't let them determine the value of my work. I am focused and determined to succeed despite everyone's doubts. I've been on the Dean's List every semester of my college career while holding leadership positions in multiple organizations and becoming a National Hispanic Scholar. I recently competed in the 2022 national Nike hacking competition, which took a lot of courage, and my first-place finish boosted my confidence in my chosen career path. As a result, I secured a job as a research fellow intern at ASU’s Center for Gender Equity in Science and Technology. I get to advocate for female students of color in STEM and offer a setting that emphasizes empowerment. I’ve always made it a personal goal to defy the odds, and nothing will stop me now.

Q: How did you come upon the Lincoln Scholars Program, and what inspired you to join?

A: I found the Lincoln Scholars Program on the ASU scholarships page. My family was going through a rough time, and I was determined to find a way through it. The program gave me the opportunity to continue my education when I thought all hope was lost. I will forever be thankful for the day I found the Lincoln Scholars Program, and all that it has given me.

As a computer information systems major, I believe our lessons about the applied ethics of technology in today’s modern world will greatly benefit my decision-making throughout my career. I enjoy the diversity in the class and its openness to hearing statements from all sides of the debate.

Q: You have had various leadership experiences and are very active outside your school studies. What skills have you gained from that, and do you have any advice for other students looking to get more involved in their communities?

A: I have learned that being a leader is a quality that is earned, not given. During my freshman year, I joined my first club, which has changed who I am as a person in ways I couldn't have imagined. I have created so many memories and friendships due to this community of leaders. Every organization truly is impressive in its own way, and each club contains hardworking and kind-hearted students. I consider myself lucky to work with them. It has been an honor to have the opportunity to serve them as a member of the executive boards.

Good leadership is the key to achieving great things and executing new, creative ideas. It is important to set an example of what a leader should be like, and be an essential resource in case members come to me for help.

Q: What do you look forward to most about graduating in the spring?

A: I am looking forward to this next phase of my life, when I hopefully will get to be closer to my family again. Family is very important to me, but so is my education, so these past four years, I have had to live far away from those closest to me. My goal is to get a software development role that is either remote, based in Yuma, Arizona, or San Diego.

Karina Fitzgerald

Communications program coordinator , Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics