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See Inside November/December 2011

Gossip Shapes What We See

Having a bad reputation gets you noticed



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Gossip can act as a useful social shortcut—it lets you know whom to avoid without your having to learn a person’s faults the hard way. And gossip may also influence whether you notice someone in the first place, according to a study published in Science on June 17.

To test whether gossip affects visual awareness, psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett of Northeastern University and her collaborators took advantage of a phenomenon called binocular rivalry. Each eye is presented with a different image, and the viewer consciously perceives them as alter­nating back and forth. The alternation between images is not under the sub­ject’s control, and it typically happens every few seconds.

In the study, 66 volunteers first saw pictures of 30 faces, each paired with a sentence describing a negative, positive or neutral social behavior. For example, a face could be associated with the act of throwing a chair at a classmate, helping an elderly woman with her groceries or passing a man on the street.

After learning these relationships, the subjects were shown faces in one eye and houses in the other, and they pressed buttons to indicate which one they were seeing. Judging by the length of their button presses, the subjects spent more time perceiving the faces linked to negative actions than the visages connected to positive or neutral acts. This preference for seeing bad people could be protective, the authors suggest, because it might allow us to monitor threatening behavior from afar.

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