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Psssstt!!! Gossip and the Link to Your Vision

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Gossip can be juicy, but can it also be useful? The unwritten rules of society imply that gossip should be avoided and dismissed as an unnecessary distraction. However, a recent study at Northeastern University has shown that our subconscious values gossip and that our eyes and mind pay particular attention to negative gossip. It seems our visual system and brain select for information that may help protect you from a potentially dangerous person who could cause you or others harm in the long run. Think of it as your mind capturing a mental mugshot of someone who has done something terrible in the past (or so you’ve heard.)

Participants in this study were simultaneously shown a different image to each of their eyes using a mirror stereoscope. One of their eyes was shown an image of a house, while, at the same time, the other eye was shown an image of a human face. Each eye seeing a different image creates binocular rivalry and the brain ends up having to choose which image to pay the most attention to and it temporarily ignores or suppresses the other eye’s input. Before the participants were shown these pictures they were told something about the person in each image. They were either told a positive, neutral or negative statement and the subject matter of the statement was also social or non-social. For example, “he threw a chair at his classmate” would be a negative, social statement, while “she drew the curtains in the room” would be a neutral, non-social statement.

Participants were then asked to indicate what they were seeing (the house or the face) and for how long (the brain and the eyes may switch back and forth between the two images while deciding on which one will take over their visual consciousness). They discovered that participants reported their eyes (and brain) saw the image of a person’s face for the longest period of time when it was associated with a negative, social gossip. When the person’s face was paired with positive or neutral gossip, it wasn’t seen for as long. Also, even when a person’s face was paired with negative information, such as ‘he had a root canal,’ since the information wasn’t social in nature, it did not significantly dominate the visual consciousness as long as a negative, social tidbit of gossip did. This led researchers to believe that negative, social gossip may trigger some sort of protective mechanism inside of us. If we focus on the face longer knowing that it is a ‘bad guy,’ we may be creating a mental note to watch out for that person in the future or that we may be put on alert, trying to study and gather more information about that person.

Have you ever heard someone say that after they ‘found out something’ about someone else, they ‘never looked at’ that person the same way again? This may explain part of the reason why. Our eyes and our brain may be actively compiling a visual rolodex of “who is friend and who is foe.”

Interesting stuff, and it gives new meaning to the phrase, ‘watch out for that guy.’

[Editor's note: An earlier version of this article appeared on the author's blog.]


Anderson E, Siegel EH, Bliss-Moreau E, & Barrett LF (2011). The visual impact of gossip. Science, 2011 June 17; 332 (6036): 1446-8. Epub 2011 May 19. PMCID:

PMC3141574 DOI: 10.1126/science.1201574


Photo credits: stock.xchng photo©[Israel Papillon/ispap] (the secret); stock.xchng photo©[Sonja Mildner/sauerkraut] (Portrait man leering); Gotcha! by Erica© [Erica Angiolillo] (author’s pic)

Cheryl Murphy About the Author: Cheryl G. Murphy is an optometrist and freelance science writer living and working in New York State. She began writing about vision science on her blog,Science Hidden in Plain Sight, in 2008. Links to her previous contributions to Scientific American’s guest blog can be found here. Follow her on Facebook or Twitter. Follow on Twitter @murphyod.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Comments 5 Comments

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  1. 1. rwstutler 7:16 pm 08/12/2011

    this study appears to support other recent neurological insights into the operation of the subconscious portions of our brains and minds. whether it can be replicated, and what specific neural paths are involved would be more interesting.

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