How Juicy Gossip Hijacks Your Brain

Our brains automatically spotlight people embroiled in scandal.

Posted Jul 15, 2011

Your brain automatically zeroes in your attention on people you've heard negative remarks about.  Without consciously trying, your brain sifts through your surroundings and ignores most people—the harmless average Joes passing by—while picking out someone you have reason to be wary of. 

Led by graduate students Eric Anderson and Erika Siegel at Boston's Northeastern University, researchers tested how gossip affects our brain by using a phenomenon called binocular rivalry.  Binocular rivalry occurs when you show a different image to each eye simultaneously.  Imagine looking into a pair of binoculars where your left eye sees a rhinoceros while your right eye sees the Eiffel Tower.  Your brain doesn't see both images at the same time, meshing the rhino into the Tower, but instead it mutes the image from one eye and focuses solely on the other.  You see either the rhino or the Tower—and they may alternate—but you won't see both at once.  Even though both eyes work fine, your brain filters the visual information and you consciously experience only part of what your eyes are seeing.    Seeing one image rather than the other suggests that the seen image dominates your perception; your brain selects it for conscious experience. 

Anderson and Siegel showed participants a series of faces and told them some gossip about each person.  Examples included "threw a chair at his classmate" (negative gossip), "helped an elderly woman with her groceries" (positive gossip), and "passed a man on the street" (neutral gossip).  Anderson and Siegel then showed participants one of the faces they had seen in one eye and a house in the other eye and had them press a button to indicate which image they were seeing.  The length of time they focused on the face versus the house determined how strongly their brain selected it for awareness.  Participants focused on the faces paired with positive and neutral gossip about equally. 

Binocular Rivalry

Although participants selectively saw faces associated with negative gossip, one possibility is that we have a tendency to stare at anything appalling, like driving by a car wreck and slowing down to check out the damage.  Might this explain why we target our attention to people at the center of rumors? 

To test if the participants focused only on the faces paired with negative information, Anderson and Siegel ran a second experiment.  This time, they added new faces and gave the participants non-social information about them, such as "had a root canal performed" (negative), "felt the warm sunshine" (positive), or "drew the curtains in the room" (neutral). 

In this second study, participants still saw the faces paired with negative gossip longer than those paired with positive or neutral gossip, and also longer than the faces of people who had suffered through a root canal.  We don't fixate on people because of their troubling plight; we focus on people who have caused trouble. 

According to Anderson and Siegel, gossip "is a powerful way to learn whom to befriend and, even more important, whom to avoid—all without the costly and time-consuming process of learning from firsthand experience."  By homing in on liars and cheats, we can protect ourselves from being lied to or cheated.  

These studies highlight the brain's ability to shape our experience, even beneath our awareness.  We might think that what we see should correspond to what appears before our eyes, that whatever filters into our retina relays directly back to our brain.  In fact, our brain can manipulate what gets sent to it in the first place.  If our brain can unconsciously control our sight, it could also affect our thoughts and behaviors without our awareness. 

This study may also explain why, so the gossip goes, Casey Anthony plans to change her appearance and relocate to an untold location once she's released from jail.  She knows we'll be watching her. 

Reference:

Eric Anderson, Erika Siegel, Eliza Bliss-Moreau, Lisa Feldman Barrett. The Visual Impact of Gossip. Science 332, 1446 (2011)