Is gossip’s bad rap undeserved? According to new research, it just may be. It’s not necessarily just catty chatter over the fence anymore; gossiping may actually be hardwired into our brains and serve an evolutionary purpose.
The study, which took place at Northeastern University in Boston, found that the human visual system responds differently to a face when there is negative gossip associated with it.1 So once we have heard something off-putting about a certain person, we literally see them in a different way.
The subjects were shown a series of faces and were told a bit of gossip about each one. Some was positive, some was neutral, and some was negative. To determine the brain’s response to this information, the scientists placed differing images — that of a face and a house — before the left and right eyes of each participant. When we are shown totally different images before each of our eyes, we experience binocular rivalry. Since the brain can only process one of the images at a time, it automatically focuses on the one it deems most essential.
When the study volunteers’ brains were thrown into binocular rivalry, they were much more likely to focus on the faces shown that had been associated with negative gossip. The faces paired with positive or neutral gossip did not dominate the visual consciousness the same way. That means the brain appears to be hardwired to pay particular attention to those people we have been led to believe we should dislike or not trust, which would obviously have its benefits evolutionarily speaking — assuming that, at least on some occasions, the gossip is correct.
Part of survival of the fittest back in caveman days might have been listening to gossip about who wanted to take control of the group, who might be hostile, and who was attracted to a certain mate. Information of this kind would presumably be valuable and would have kept some of our ancient ancestors alive if they paid attention. Today, we might not have to worry about who would like to club us over the head, but gossip can still serve the function of letting us know who might act like a friend but is secretly plotting to steal your job or is interested in your significant other.
But the scuttlebutt on gossip doesn’t stop there.
Another recent study, which took place at the University of Amsterdam, found additional potential benefits to gossiping, including helping people share and cooperate.2 The research volunteers were told they were receiving 100 cash-prize lottery tickets. Each person was placed in a random group and informed that they could give as many of the tickets to their group members as they desired and keep the remainder for themselves.
Half of the participants were told that no one in their group would know how many tickets they distributed and how many they chose to keep. The other half of the participants were told that the others in their group would know exactly how the tickets were distributed, including how many the subject chose to keep. Some of the participants were told the people in their group were quite likely to gossip and some were told their group members were highly unlikely to gossip.
All of the volunteers kept more tickets for themselves and did not distribute them evenly. (Big surprise!) But when they believed that others would know how fairly the tickets were distributed and were prone to gossiping, they gave out tickets much more generously. So even though on one level it is clearly to their own benefit to act selfishly in cases like this, the mere threat of gossip affects people in a positive way, reinforcing the community nature of our society.
The bottom line is that although gossip has many negative associations, it is now being demonstrated to have some positive aspects as well. Used wisely and carefully, it seems that paying attention to gossip just might provide a few benefits for human beings…as long as we’re not the ones using it to be malicious and spread rumors.
1 Anderson, Eric; Siegel, Erika H.; Bliss-Moreau, Eliza; Feldman Barrett, Lisa. “The Visual Impact of Gossip.” Science. 19 May 2011. American Association for the Advancement of Science. 13 July 2011. http://www.sciencemag.org/content/332/6036/1446.abstract?sid=7d10b257-4e12-4882-abae-5ceeae8cd829.
2 Beersma, Bianca and Van Kleef, Gerben A. “How the Grapevine Keeps You in Line: Gossip Increases Contributions to the Group.” Social Psychological & Personality Science. 12 April 2011. Social and Personality Psychology Consortium. 15 July 2011. http://spp.sagepub.com/content/early/2011/04/09/1948550611405073.abstract.
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