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Why Do We Love To Know Bad Things About Others?

A new research has revealed why people are more interested in negative gossip about someone than positive things.

"They found that our brains compel us to stare longer at someone's face if we've heard something negative about them," reports the Daily Mail .

To reach their conclusions, scientists showed study participants pictures of ordinary-looking strangers, paired with ''social information'' that was positive, negative or neutral.

Negative info included such phrases as ''She is a cheater'', and ''She threw a chair at somebody."

Then the researchers showed the same pictures in a ''binocular rivalry'' test, in which they showed each eye a different picture.

It turned out that people tended to spend much more time concentrating on the image associated with negative information, versus one paired with positive or neutral information.

The study appears in the latest issue of the peer-reviewed journal Science .


The consequences of focusing on the negative

So, gossip—especially of the nasty kind—not only influences our perceptions in a more abstract sense (Who do we like? Who don’t we like? Who matters?), but also in a very literal sense, physically changing the way we see the world.

Is this a good thing? Some might argue that yes, it is. It could help protect us from people who do bad things: we focus on them for longer, learn more about them and their behaviors, and in so doing, are better able to deal with the consequences and identify similar bad events, like lying or stealing or cheating, in the future.

However, what about false gossip, or the malicious spread of rumors – something that has become increasingly widespread in the world of social media? Or even a simple mistake resulting from misinformation? We’d be more likely to hone in on that, too. And what we’d learn in that case would not necessarily be true or even helpful. And consider the person in question: the extra scrutiny that comes from our biological, physical focus on him because of the negative gossip comes at a high price to reputation – and one that can’t be undone by a simple addition of positive information, since, as the research has shown, positive information does not carry the same privileged weight. That makes remedying a mistake (or a malicious stab) all the more difficult.

The importance of being aware of gossip’s power over our minds

That last point holds even for true negative gossip. We might be able to correct something we did, or make up for it in some way, but the negative event will haunt us for far longer and will remain much more salient – something that’s especially true as our mistakes follow us in perpetuity in cyberspace.

And here’s the kicker: when we focus in on someone because of some negative gossip, whether it’s by actually looking at him longer in person, or choosing to read more about him online, we might not actually realize we’re doing it. That’s the power of simple visual processing. Something to remember the next time we do something gossip-worthy ourselves – or find ourselves drawn to some negative gossip on others.


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