Rumor has it that humans are predisposed to gossip. Now, research has it, too.
A new study suggests that negative information about a person’s social life — for example, that someone abandoned a partner — actually changes how we look at that person.
Published online May 19 by the journal Science, the study involved 59 college students who first viewed a collection of faces, each one accompanied by a negative, neutral or positive piece of social information. Among the negatives were statements such as the person had “hit a small child,” “made a racist comment” or “threw a chair at his classmate.” Positives included “gave up seat on the bus to a pregnant lady,” while neutrals included “rode the elevator with a co-worker.”
Researchers then employed a technique called binocular rivalry. With their heads fixed near a screen, participants’ eyes were each presented a different image at the same time; for example, their right eye had the image of a house, while their left eye had a face. Two competing images force the brain to focus on one image over the other, at least temporarily. Researchers found that the participants spent significantly more time — on average, half a second more — focusing on negatively associated faces than on positively or neutrally associated faces.
“Gossip changes the way we view people, but it also changes the way we literally see a person,” said Lisa Barrett, one of the study’s authors and a psychology professor at Northeastern University, in an interview. “Gossip reaches all the way down into our visual system.”
The findings have important implications, Barrett said, for mediating interpersonal conflict, as well as for psychiatric conditions such as social anxiety, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.