RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
By the way, have you heard? Gossip has a bad reputation. But many scientists believe it helped our early ancestors get ahead. Scientists have found evidence that our brains are actually wired to respond to gossip. And a new study shows scuttlebutt can actually change the way our visual system responds to a face. Though as NPR's Jon Hamilton reports, that's only true when a tidbit conveys something negative.
JON HAMILTON: We all gossip. Lisa Feldman Barrett of Northeastern University says it's really just another way you get information about people.
Dr. LISA FELDMAN BARRETT (Northeastern University): Gossip is helping you to predict who is friend and who is foe - you know, who should I compete with, who should I avoid, who should I play with? That kind of thing.
HAMILTON: Barrett is part of a team that's been studying how gossip affects not just what we know about an unfamiliar person, but how we feel about them.
Dr. BARRETT: So if I just tell you this person stole a wallet, or this person helped an old woman across the street, would that actually change your basic feelings about that person?
HAMILTON: Not surprisingly, the answer is yes. And Barrett says that raised a new question: Once hearsay has predisposed us to see someone in a certain way, is it possible that we literally see them differently? That may seem like a strange thing to ask. But Barrett says the human brain has a whole lot of connections between regions that process visual information and areas involved in our most basic emotions. So the team did another experiment.
Dr. BARRETT: Subjects would come in, and we would present them with structurally neutral faces paired with descriptions of behavior.
HAMILTON: Some of these faces got paired with a negative behavior, like stole money from a friend. Other faces were associated with more positive actions. Then the researchers looked to see how the volunteers' brains responded to the different kinds of information. They did this by showing the left and right eyes of each person very different images.
Dr. BARRETT: So in one eye, you might show a face, and in the other eye, you might show a house.
HAMILTON: The human brain can only handle one of those images at a time. So it unconsciously tends to linger on the one it considers more important. And Barrett says in this experiment, the volunteers' brains were most likely to fix on faces associated with negative gossip.
Dr. BARRETT: Gossip doesn't just influence your opinions about people. It actually influences how you see them visually.
HAMILTON: The finding suggests we are hard-wired to pay more attention to a person if we've been told they are dangerous or dishonest or unpleasant. Other scientists say that makes sense from an evolutionary perspective.
Frank McAndrew is a professor of psychology at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois.
Professor FRANK MCANDREW (Psychology, Knox College): I was actually pretty excited to see this paper, because for years, people like me have been saying that our intense interest in gossip is not really a character flaw. It's part of who we are. It's almost a biological event, and that it exists for good, evolutionary reasons.
HAMILTON: McAndrew says even when primitive humans lived in small groups, it was important to know things like who might hurt you or who was after the same mate you were. And learning those things through personal experience would have been slow and potentially dangerous. So McAndrew says one shortcut would have been gossip.
Prof. MCANDREW: People who had an intense interest in that, that constantly were monitoring who's sleeping with who and who's friends with whom and who you can trust and who you can't came out ahead. People who just didn't care about that stuff got left behind.
HAMILTON: And McAndrew says it makes sense that our brains pay special attention to negative gossip.
Prof. MCANDREW: If somebody is a competitor or somebody is higher than you in the food chain, you want dirt about them. You want negative information, because that's the stuff you can exploit to get ahead.
HAMILTON: The new study is published online by the journal Science.
Jon Hamilton, NPR News.
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