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.

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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...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.