The kind of negative tittle-tattle that appears daily in the tabloids seems to bear little merit. But experts believe that historically, paying attention to such gossip played an important role in our survival chances, such that today negative hearsay continues to bias our visual system.
Eric Anderson at Northeastern University in Boston and his colleagues have shown this in a new study that paired photos of neutral faces with lines of positive, negative or neutral gossip, and presented these to 61 participants on-screen. Typical lines of gossip were ‘threw a chair at his classmate’, ‘helped an elderly woman with her groceries’ and ‘passed a man on the street’. Each face was paired four times with its designated nugget of social information.
These faces were then presented in a binocular rivalry paradigm with pictures of houses. This means that using a piece of a equipment called a stereoscope, a face was presented exclusively to one eye and a house exclusively to the other, which would have led the two images to compete for access to the participant’s conscious awareness. For the participants, a fluctuating perceptual experience would then have ensued, first one image seen, then the other, and back again until the trial finished after ten seconds.
Participants were asked to press a keyboard key to indicate which image they could see at any given time and Anderson’s finding is that faces previously paired with negative gossip tended to dominate and be seen for longer, by more than half a second, than faces paired previously with positive or neutral gossip, or entirely new faces.
In case negative gossip was simply learned more effectively than the other gossip types, a second study controlled for how well participants learned the initial face-gossip associations and the main finding was replicated. This follow-up study also showed that neutral faces paired with negative gossip dominated in consciousness longer than neutral faces paired with non-social negative information, such as ‘had a root canal performed.’
Anderson’s team said it was easy to see the survival value in the brain prioritising the visual perception of people tagged with negative gossip, thereby allowing them to be seen for longer and for more information about them to be garnered. ‘Our results … [show] that top-down affective information acquired through gossip influences vision,’ the researchers said, ‘so that what we know about someone influences not only how we feel and think about them, but also whether or not we see them in the first place.’ The finding lends scientific credence to the established PR wisdom that for entertainers vying for the spotlight, there’s no such thing as bad press.
Eric Anderson, Erika Siegel, Eliza Bliss-Moreau, and Lisa Feldman Barrett (2011). The visual impact of gossip. Science DOI: 10.1126/science.1201574