Gossip changes the way you see people—literally. According to a study of visual perception, hearing nasty rumors about people makes their faces stand out.
Over the course of a typical day, you might see hundreds of people. But you pay attention to only a few of them, and not just by choice. Your brain filters and prioritizes details in your environment—such as who is in the room with you—long before you are consciously aware of them. (For example, try this classic experiment.) What information does your brain use to make you notice some people and not others?
One crucial piece of information is whether someone is a friend or foe. You can decide that yourself by direct observation, but you can also listen to what other people say. Juicy gossip has a powerful effect on our opinions of people, but can it also determine whom we notice in the first place?
To catch subjects’ brains in the act of choosing people for conscious awareness, a team led by Lisa Barrett, a psychologist at Northeastern University in Boston, used a technique called binocular rivalry. The researchers showed different images to each subject’s left and right eye at the same time, creating a contest between them. The result is that the viewer registers one of the images before the other. The amount of time it takes a subject to report seeing each image indicates the relative priority granted by the brain.
The researchers presented photographs of faces to 66 college students and gave them some gossip about each. For some of the photographs, the students were told that the person “threw a chair at a classmate.” Others came with either positive or neutral information, such as “helped an elderly woman with her groceries” or “passed a man on the street.” These faces were shown to one eye while the other eye saw a picture of a house. As a control, the team also used some faces that the students had never seen. The students then pressed one button when they could see a face and another when they saw a house.
Gossip does affect how we see people, but only if it’s nasty. Subjects were no faster at seeing the faces of people with positive or neutral information than at seeing the control faces. But the face of someone who “threw a chair at a classmate” popped into the students’ consciousness about half a second more quickly, the team reports online today in Science.
“It is not very often that people will have two completely different images presented to each eye simultaneously,” says Olivia Carter, a psychologist at the University of Melbourne in Australia. However, she adds that “these results do suggest that you might be more likely to notice someone in a crowd if you recently heard negative gossip about them. This in itself is quite remarkable.”