WebMD Medical News
Laura J. Martin, MD
May 19, 2011 -- Gossip can be juicy, delicious, mean, entertaining, destructive -- or all of the above. However it's described, gossip does have a purpose, according to new research.
''We think it is a protective-type role," says researcher Eliza Bliss-Moreau, PhD, post-doctoral fellow in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of California, Davis.
"Gossip helps us predict who is friend or foe without firsthand experience with those people," she tells WebMD.
Bliss-Moreau and her colleagues arrived at the conclusion after studying the visual impact of gossip. The researchers found that people pay more attention to the faces of people they have heard negative things about than faces of people they hear positive or neutral things about or to other images.
"The idea would be, based on the finding, is if we can see those people [talked about negatively] for longer times, we can gather more information about them," Bliss-Moreau says. "It might be a mechanism that has evolved to protect us from liars and cheaters and people in our large social groups who have the potential to do us harm."
Observing these potential troublemakers for a longer period may give us clues about whether they are actually a threat, the research suggests.
The study is published online in Science.
The researchers conducted the study around an accepted phenomenon known as binocular rivalry.
The term refers to a situation in which you are presented with two things to look at, setting up a rivalry for your brain's attention.
"The way the brain works, you can only see one at a time, so you flip back and forth quickly," Bliss-Moreau tells WebMD. The amount of time you look at each image is not typically under your conscious control.
For the study, the researchers first showed the participants pictures of faces while describing positive, negative, or neutral things about what the person in the picture had done.
Negative comments included such information as "threw a chair at his classmate." Positive comments included "helped an elderly woman with her groceries." An example of a neutral comment was "passed a man on the street."
Participants next were shown two images -- one a face and the other an image of a house. It was only possible to look at one at a time. The participants pressed a key on a keyboard when the image they saw switched from one to the other.
They looked longest at the faces associated with negative gossip.
"The key finding is that if a face has been paired with negative gossip, you see it for longer compared to the house," Bliss-Moreau says.
The results show that information gotten through gossip influences vision, according to Bliss-Moreau. "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," she writes.
"If you hear negative gossip about people at one time, and then you encounter them at a later time, you are more likely to pay attention to their behavior," she says.
If you look at them for a longer time, and observe their behavior, she says, you can then figure out if you need to protect yourself from them or not.
Linking gossip with our ability to process visual stimuli is a creative research approach, says Moshe Bar, PhD, director of the Harvard Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory.
He reviewed the study findings for WebMD but was not involved in the study.
The study adds to what experts already know about our brain being an ''association machine," he says.
"First, it shows that quick exposure to a complex piece of information [gossip] is sufficient to cause a strong association," Bar says. "We just hear something about someone and it is enough to substantially bias our impression about that someone."
The new research also shows that ''negative associations are strong enough to emerge from outside awareness to affect our thoughts and potentially actions."
Although knowing someone in a picture threw a chair at a classmate "does not pose an immediate threat to us, our brain still does not take chances [and] seems to consider this as worth heightened sensitivity," he tells WebMD.
SOURCES:Eliza Bliss-Moreau, PhD, post-doctoral fellow in psychiatry and behavioral sciences, University of California, Davis.Moshe Bar, PhD, director, Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory, Harvard Medical School, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston.Anderson, E. Science, published online May 19, 2011.
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