Have You Heard? Study Says Gossip Protects You

By Sanjay Salomon


May 31, 2011

A new study from Northeastern says swapping secrets about people -- especially negative ones -- actually changes the way we look at them. The study does not say anything about gossiping flamingoes. (* Cati Kaoe */Flickr)

BOSTON — It’s no secret that dishing the dirt on the latest scandal is fun. But a Northeastern University study says gossip evolved as a protective mechanism — and it’s meant to be good for us.
Study author Lisa Feldman Barrett says gossip helps the brain distinguish friends from enemies because it literally changes how people see each other. The research was published this month in the journal Science.
“Normally the assumption is when you see something it changes your feeling and it might change your belief and knowledge,” Feldman Barrett said. “But in this experiment we showed the opposite is true also. What you feel in a given moment… actually influences what you see in quite a literal way.”

Watch Greater Boston. (Click for larger view)

Feldman Barrett and her team conducted a pair of experiments to test the effects of gossip. In the first experiment, a group of participants were shown ordinary, expressionless faces. The faces were then paired with a specific piece of information, such as “threw a chair at his classmates,” “helped an elderly woman with her groceries,” or “passed a man on the street.”
When the participants viewed the faces again, they were more likely to focus on the face associated with negative gossip.
In the second experiment, the researchers examined how the volunteers responded to different kinds of visual information by showing different images to their left and right eyes at the same time. For example, one eye might see a face, while the other would see a house.
The experiment triggered something called “binocular rivalry.” In other words, because the human brain can only handle one image at a time, it unconsciously lingers on the image it considers more important. Researchers found volunteers were more likely to focus on faces associated with negative gossip than on a house.
Feldman Barrett says the research indicates that gossip serves a protective function, since the brain is focusing on people who may pose a threat.
“Gossip is a really potent way to learn about other people when you don’t have to suffer the consequences of their actions,” she said.
Feldman Barrett said gossip also indicates who is a friend.

“Evolutionary biologists think this is kind of a social glue,” says Feldman Barrett. “If you look at non-human primates, they groom each other then the eat flies. What we do is we digest the same tasty kind of tidbits….that seems to serve the same purpose.”

Now that’s something to talk about.

Sign Up

Sign-up for WGBH News updates, WGBH promotions, and previews of what's coming up on WGBH TV.




Support for WGBH is provided by:
Become a WGBH sponsor