Unflat­tering gossip about our friends, family mem­bers — even down-​​and-​​out movie stars — shapes our visual per­cep­tion of these indi­vid­uals and pro­vides a looking glass into how we sub­con­sciously pro­tect our­selves from harm, according to a new study led by a neu­ro­sci­en­tist at North­eastern Uni­ver­sity.
“You are more con­scious of a face if you know some­thing bad about that person,” says Dis­tin­guished Pro­fessor of Psy­chology Lisa Feldman-​​Barrett, who led the study. “Gossip,” she says, “has an effect on how the visual system works.”

The results of the study were reported in the journal Science.

Bar­rett col­lab­o­rated with researchers from the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­fornia, Davis, Mass­a­chu­setts Gen­eral Hos­pital and Har­vard Med­ical School to study the ways in which gossip informs human social inter­ac­tion — espe­cially in the absence of direct con­tact with an individual.

As part of the study, Bar­rett employed a tech­nique in visual neu­ro­science called binoc­ular rivalry, in which one image — say, a house — is pre­sented to a subject’s left eye and a very dif­ferent image — a smiling or scowling face — is pre­sented to the right eye.

In this case, par­tic­i­pants in the study were pre­sented with images of visu­ally neu­tral faces that were paired with three kinds of gossip: neg­a­tive (“hit a dog” or “stole money”), pos­i­tive (“helped an elderly woman cross the street” or “vol­un­teered at an animal shelter”) or neu­tral (“mailed a letter” or “went shop­ping”). The faces were then paired with an unre­lated image.

Faces asso­ci­ated with the neg­a­tive gossip, researchers found, were more visu­ally salient and viewed for longer periods of time than faces paired with the pos­i­tive or neu­tral gossip.

As Bar­rett puts it, “If gossip helps pre­dict who is friend and who is foe without first-​​hand expe­ri­ence of that person, then this strategy may have evolved to pro­tect us from liars and cheaters.”

If we see them for longer periods of time, then we can gather more infor­ma­tion about their behavior.”

According to Bar­rett, we don’t inter­pret the world through the exclu­sivity of our senses. “Usu­ally we assume that what you see influ­ences what you feel, but here we have a case where what you feel about someone influ­ences what you see visu­ally. This has imme­diate use for trans­la­tional science.”

View selected pub­li­ca­tions of Lisa Feldman Bar­rett in IRis, Northeastern’s dig­ital archive.