Bad gossip affects our vision as well as our judgment

By Ed Yong | May 20, 2011 8:47 am

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

Photo by mohammadali


Comments (12)

  1. For some reason this post reminds me of Vickie Pollard:

  2. jdmimic

    Great. Another thing to add to the list of things to say when people tell me seeing is believing. It seems more and more clear that it is really believing is seeing.

  3. Karl defenske

    I wonder if this is the Sartre of thing that effects eye witness identification and mis-identification?

  4. AG

    “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.”

    This `gossip’ might also play its role for world economy in terms of valuation. For example, Japanese product might have even better true quality, but valued at cheaper price. For human, outsourcing to cheap labor is the same. Why some one is `cheap’? Gossip does contribut big deal.
    Salesmen’s skill is good at gossiping to devaluate competitors and outsell themself. Good verbal skill is critical for value transfer (or exploitation).

  5. manju

    Thanks for the though-provoking article. Noticing or mentally registering the presence of a person with perceived negative traits seems like a natural, even primitive, instinct. Is there something Darwinian about it? `A guy who picks fights with strangers, bites puppies’ OR a caveman from a rival gang, a lion lazying around at a far awy spot has to be kept in one’s sight. Probably, that gives one a sense of security, being prepared for a possible confrontation. Is it wired into our brains that one cannot afford to not keep track of the trouble-maker… it’s prerequisite for survival.

  6. John McVey

    This is a special case of verbal overshadowing, though in this case, pre not post facto?

  7. kat

    Hey Ed, what’s up with the “xxxx” in this sentence:

    “It’s why when you burn your hand, the feeling of pain and the sight of your recoiling limb seem simultaneous, even though the xxxx reaches your brain first.”

    Did you forget to replace the x’s with which signal is first? :) [Ha! Busted! – Ed]

  8. Nice post on a nifty piece of research. This meshes well with Robin Dunbar’s idea that about 2/3 of human speech is gossip (broadly defined as talking about others). To Dunbar, this replaces the exchange of information and maintenance of alliances that many nonhuman primates accomplish through grooming: Both sorts of exchange let us learn much about the primate we’re gossiping with or grooming as well as those we gossip about or observe gossiping. I wrote about this some in an article about a Times Magazine article about Williams syndrome a while back; people with Williams syndrome tend to miss much of negative and veiled information in these exchanges. (See “The Gregarious Brain,”; the material on Dunbar comes in about 3/4 of the way through.)

    Very juicy stuff — and as this study suggests, extremely high value. Which is why we so enjoy talking with and about other people. It can be risky, but it generates huge returns in information.

  9. Charlie B

    Malicious gossip just makes question the gossipers motive. Why disparage a stranger to me? I move away from the gossiper – they are usually liar’s or looking to get leverage over a better.

  10. Kim Y

    Nice to give credit to Anderson & Siegel, but the senior/lead researcher is actually the final author listed (Barrett). That’s standard practice in many scientific journals.

  11. Joe Marfice

    Most people seem to define gossip as “when others talk about people in a way I don’t like”; of course, gossip is vitally important to reinforcing our social networks. Charlie B’s pleasant ideals aside, no human actually follows that rule. The article helps point out why it is as dangerous to ignore gossip as it is to follow gossip blindly.

  12. geeta

    Any kind of gossip, good/bad, about a stranger will turn my attention to the stranger, at least for a bit. But in any case, I move away from the gossipper (or change the subject, making it obvious that I have no interest in hearing about their opinions about someone else), as Charlie B says in #9


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