Bianca Beersma and Gerben Van Kleef of the University of Amsterdam tested whether the threat of gossip could suppress selfish behavior. They invited study participants into the laboratory and convinced them that they were part of a group that would interact first through computers and then face-to-face.
The participants were told they had been randomly chosen to distribute 100 tickets for a cash-prize lottery -- they could be generous and distribute the tickets to group members, or be selfish and keep a large share of the tickets for themselves.
Half of the time, the study participant was told the choice would be private and none of the group would know how many tickets they took for themselves. The rest of the time, people expected group members would know how many tickets they kept for themselves.
The study, published in the Social Psychological and Personality Science, found in every condition, people acted selfishly to some degree -- most kept more than an equal share for themselves, but when their actions were public and the chance for gossip was high, people behaved in a substantially less selfish way.