Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Why We Love Trashy Gossip

By Madeleine Lum

Our visual system is hard-wired to pay attention to people we’ve heard bad things about.

Thousands of magazines devote acreages of paper to gossip. No matter how hard we try to ignore the racks of magazines next to the checkout aisle, our eyes are drawn to the headlines. It turns out that our visual system is wired to focus on people that we have heard negative gossip about, presumably to avoid harmful individuals.

A recent study published in Science by psychologist Lisa Bevett from Northeastern University and her colleagues suggests that gossip can change the way we perceive other people. They concluded that when we hear a rumour about someone, their face stands out prominently, and even more so if the rumour is negative.

The research team used binocular rivalry, where participants of the study are shown two images – one to their left eye and another image to their right eye – to create a competition between the images for the subject’s attention (see image).

To determine how gossip demands the attention of a participant, tidbits of information were given about different individuals whose images were displayed. The information ranged from neutral statements like “passed a man on a street” to positive statements like “helped an elderly woman with her groceries” and negative statements like “threw a chair at his classmate”.

The results showed that an individual with a negative connection was recognised much more quickly, and the length of the participant’s gaze on the individual was longer than for individuals who were labelled with neutral or positive connotations.

This could have evolutionary connections among primitive humans for whom gossip may have been essential to survival.

These findings contradict the notion that we disregard hurtful or unpleasant information. The study suggests that the opposite occurs.

The next step for researchers is to determine how our visual system is linked with our internal thoughts. It begins to put substance into the old saying that eyes are the windows to our souls.

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Dutch researchers have identified the eight main triggers that can temporarily increase your risk of an aneurysm and stroke. Among them are coffee consumption, sex and being angry.

The common feature of the triggers is that they induce a sudden short increase in blood pressure, which is a common cause for aneurismal rupture. The increased risk also decreases quickly.

An aneurysm occurs when the wall of an artery weakens and bulges. These can occur anywhere throughout the body. If they burst, they haemorrhage. In the brain this can be particularly dangerous as this leads to a stroke.

Researchers asked 250 patients who had suffered a ruptured brain aneurysm about their exposure to 30 possible triggers before the haemorrhage. One clear result was that if someone who has an aneurysm was startled, the risk of a burst aneurysm increased 23-fold. Being angry increased the risk by six times but this was not so much as sexual intercourse, which increased the risk by 11 times.

Researchers also found that the strain caused by defecating while suffering constipation increases the risk of stroke seven times. Drinking a cup of coffee increased the risk of stroke by two times as did nose blowing and vigorous physical activity.

Researchers stress that this risk is extremely small as 2% of the population have an untreated brain aneurysm. However, people who have had aneurysms should exercise care and avoid the behaviours.

The researchers concluded that some of the triggers are modifiable and that further studies are needed to assess whether reduced exposure to these triggers or measures taken to prevent an increase in blood pressure decrease the risk of rupture in patients known to have an aneurysm in the brain.

The study was published in Stroke.