Bad gossip catches the eye

Gossip doesn’t just affect how you’re judged, a study shows, it controls whether people see you at all.

According to evolutionists, a good prattle is vital in forging relationships.  It’s the human equivalent of chimps picking flees from each other.

It’s also key to our huge social groups.  We quickly evaluate people we’ve never met, learning from each others’ experiences rather than wasting energy on lowlifes.

But beside helping us see through someone’s social veneer, scientists from Havard Medical School and two other US universities have discovered that negative gossip also significantly alters how we perceive them visually.

In the experiment, participants were first shown mug shots of strangers.  The faces were neutral, i.e. no smiles, frowns or missing teeth and each photo came with different gossip – social or non-social and positive, negative or neutral.  For example, “She felt the warm sunshine,” is non-social positive, while, “He repeatedly slept with his sister-in-law,” is social negative.

Next, participants looked into a mirror stereoscope – a contraption that presents a different image to each eye.  One eye saw a picture of a house, while the other was presented with one of the stranger’s faces or a completely new, neutral face.

When confronted with two competing images, the brain decides which one is actually seen by drawing on a range of factors.  “Bottom up” factors are associated with the image itself e.g. brightness and contrast, while “top down” factors are those already learned by the viewer.

For a while, one image is suppressed while the other dominates, but this then flips so the other image is perceived.  Over time, the viewer will see alternating images.  By asking participants to hold down one of two computer keys for the time that they saw each image, the scientists measured which images were most dominant.

The results, published this week in Science, showed that images coupled with negative gossip were seen for significantly longer than any other – even the completely new faces.

The reason, according to the researchers, is that the longer we assess a villain’s face, the more chance we have of understanding them.  “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,” they say.

Interestingly, there was no difference at all between neutral and positive gossip.  The old adage goes that there’s no such thing as bad publicity.  Now it seems that if it’s sheer exposure you’re after, it’s probably better than good publicity.  “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,” say the scientists.

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