You’re chatting to some friends at a party and they point out someone standing in a different part of the room. That person, they inform you, is a nasty piece of work. He cheats on his girlfriend. He picks fights with strangers. Once, he bit a puppy. You’d never seen him before but after this character assassination, you start noticing him everywhere – in other parties, on the street, on Facebook.
This sort of thing happens all the time. If we get information about people from third parties – gossip – we start paying more attention to those people. There’s a simple reason for this. Gossip, especially negative gossip, affects not only our judgment, but our vision too. It influences both what we think about someone and whether we see them in the first place.
Eric Anderson and Erika Siegel from Northeastern University studied the influence of gossip on our vision with a simple experiment, which plays off a well-known conflict between our eyes. When each eye sees a different image (say, if they stare down different tubes), those images compete with one another for dominance. This is called “binocular rivalry”, and the brain acts as the arbitrator. It chooses to consciously experience one image and suppress the other. The result: even though your eyes sense both images, you only “see” one of them.
This lasts for a few seconds, before the images flip. The suppressed image becomes dominant, and the dominant one fades to view. These flips are largely out of our control, and you can work out which image is better at capturing the brain’s attention by looking at how long each one spends in the top spot.
Scientists have done this in study after study. We know that images win the rivalry if they are brighter, if they have sharper contrast, and if they are strongly emotive, such as scary faces or disgusting scenes. This time, Anderson and Siegel showed that faces are more likely to dominate if they’re shown along with negative statements, rather than positive or neutral ones.
They showed volunteers a series of neutral faces that were paired with short descriptions of social behaviour – either positive (“helped an elderly woman with her groceries”), neutral (“passed a man on the street”) or negative (“threw a chair at his classmate”). Afterwards, they stared down a “stereoscope”, a device that presented different images to each eye. They saw one of the earlier faces with one eye and a house with another, and they pressed a key whenever the dominant image flipped.
The duo found that the faces stayed longer in the volunteers’ consciousness if they had been paired with negative gossip (4.9 seconds), compared to either positive or neutral gossip (4.3 seconds). They also outlasted new faces that the volunteers hadn’t seen before.
It seemed that the recruits spent more time consciously seeing the faces if they had been paired with negative gossip. But negative information is more easily and more quickly learned – this could also have explained the results. To rule that out, Anderson and Siegel repeated the experiment with a few twists.
This time, before the stereoscope task, they tested the recruits on the faces they had learned, until they remembered those linked to positive and neutral statements as well as those linked to negative ones. They also paired the faces with social statements as well as socially irrelevant ones such as “had a root canal performed” (negative), “felt the warm sunshine” (positive), or “drew the curtains in the room” (neutral).
For the social statements, Anderson and Siegel found the same thing as before – the faces paired with social gossip were better at outcompeting the house images if the statements were negative. But if the statements weren’t socially relevant, it didn’t matter whether they were positive, neutral or negative.
The duo sum it up best: “Hearing that a person stole, lied, or cheated makes it more likely that a perceiver will consciously see that structurally neutral but purportedly villainous face.” When given a choice, our brains prioritise those faces for conscious attention.
This is an important idea, and worth repeating: what we “see” isn’t simply dictated by the signals that travel from our eyes to our brain. Our brain processes these signals by smoothing out inconsistencies and focusing our attention on important details. This is why we don’t see a gaping dark hole where our blind spot is. It’s why the world doesn’t periodically go dark whenever we blink. It’s why when you burn your hand, the feeling of pain and the sight of your recoiling limb seem simultaneous, even though the touch signals reach your brain first.
And it’s why a negative statement can make a face stand out more than a positive one. Our brain offers up a view of reality that allows us to get on with our lives, but that’s always somewhat of an illusion.
It might be disheartening to learn that we focus on the bad rather than the good, but it is also easy to imagine why this is. As Anderson and Siegel write, “this preferential selection for perceiving bad people might protect us from liars and cheaters by allowing to us to view them for longer and explicitly gather more information about their behaviour.”
The concept of gossip has negative connotations for many people but, there’s no denying that it can be valuable. As Anderson and Siegel write, “Gossip is a way to learn socially relevant information about other people’s character or personality without having to directly experience their triumphs and misadventures. Whether delicious or destructive, gossip is functional. It provides human beings with information about others in the absence of direct experience, allowing us to live in very large groups.”
We don’t have to meet every person who is relevant to our lives; we can learn about them through our contacts. “Gossip allows human beings not only to transcend one-to-one interaction for getting along and getting ahead, but also to know the “value” of people we have never met. [It] is a powerful way to learn whom to befriend, and even more importantly, whom to avoid, all without the costly and time-consuming process of learning from first-hand experience.”
Reference: Anderson, Siegel, Bliss-Moreau & Feldman Barrett. The Visual Impact of Gossip. 2011. Science http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.1201574
Photo by mohammadali