Psychological and Physiological Mechanics of Affiliation: The Role of Gossip, Oxytocin & Autonomic Nervous System


Project: Psychological and Physiological Mechanics of Affiliation - The Role of Gossip, Oxytocin & Autonomic Nervous System


Period: 2015-2019 (PhD project; BOF)

Short description

Across time and cultures, gossip has proven to be a universal behavior that strengthens social cohesion and increases trust, presumably because of its stress-reduction and social information-sharing functions. So far, the underlying biological mechanisms of this relation have received little or no attention. We suspect that the neuropeptide oxytocin (OT), which is known to have an important role in regulating social behaviors in all mammals, is likely to be involved. OT levels increase when receiving a trust signal or sharing a secret, two behaviors that also have been attributed to the act of gossip. Hence it is conceivable that gossiping may stimulate OT release, which in turn, promote positive in-group dynamics The purpose of the proposed study is to investigate if, and how, OT could have a mediating role in the relation between gossip on the one hand, and trust and cooperation on the other hand. In addition, we will investigate the moderating effects of individual differences (gender and personality traits) and contextual factors (gossip between friends vs. strangers).

This PhD project bridges the gap between physiology and psychology by utilizing research techniques from both fields in an attempt to answer the question: “what makes people form new social bonds?” First, the project addresses the question if gossip can promote new bond formation. However, at the same time it will also investigate if the effects of gossip are underlied by physiological changes experienced by the interacting people. In particular, it will focus on the role of oxytocin and parasympathetic nervous system in affiliation between strangers. This project contributes to communication science and evolutionary psychology by showing how gossip regulates the initiation of new bonds. They also expand current knowledge in psychophysiology and psychoneuroendocrinology by dissecting the role of oxytocin and parasympathetic nervous system in human affiliation.

Key publications

Rudnicki, K. (2019). Psychological and physiological mechanisms of affiliation: the role of gossip, oxytocin and autonomic nervous system (Doctoral dissertation, University of Antwerp, Belgium). Retrieved from

Rudnicki, K., Declerck, C., De Backer, C., & Berth, M. (2019). Physiological changes during first encounters and their role in determining the perceived interaction quality. Interaction Studies, 20(2), 275-306. Doi: 10.1075/is.18015.rud

Rudnicki, K., De Backer, C., & Declerck, C. (2019). The effects of celebrity gossip on trust are moderated by prosociality of the gossipers. Personality and Individual differences, 143, 42-46. Doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2019.02.010

Rudnicki, K., Ouvrein, G., De Backer, C., & Vandebosch, H. (2019). Intranasal oxytocin administration reduces bystanders' acceptance of online celebrity bashing. International Journal of Bullying Prevention, 2, 29–40. Doi: 10.1007/s42380-019-00054-2

De Backer, C., Larson, C., Fisher, M. L., McAndrew, F. T., Rudnicki, K. (2016). When Strangers Start to Gossip: Investigating the Effect of Gossip on Cooperation in a Prisoner’s Dilemma Game. Evolutionary Psychological Science, 2(4), 268–277. Doi: 10.1007/s40806-016-0063-7