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Gossip May Have a Protective Role

Study Suggests Gossiping May Help People Distinguish Friend From Foe
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

May 19, 2011 -- Gossip can be juicy, delicious, mean, entertaining, destructive -- or all of the above. However it's described, gossip does have a purpose, according to new research.

''We think it is a protective-type role," says researcher Eliza Bliss-Moreau, PhD, post-doctoral fellow in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of California, Davis.

"Gossip helps us predict who is friend or foe without firsthand experience with those people," she tells WebMD.

Bliss-Moreau and her colleagues arrived at the conclusion after studying the visual impact of gossip. The researchers found that people pay more attention to the faces of people they have heard negative things about than faces of people they hear positive or neutral things about or to other images.

"The idea would be, based on the finding, is if we can see those people [talked about negatively] for longer times, we can gather more information about them," Bliss-Moreau says. "It might be a mechanism that has evolved to protect us from liars and cheaters and people in our large social groups who have the potential to do us harm."

Observing these potential troublemakers for a longer period may give us clues about whether they are actually a threat, the research suggests.

The study is published online in Science.

Gossip and Your Brain

The researchers conducted the study around an accepted phenomenon known as binocular rivalry.

The term refers to a situation in which you are presented with two things to look at, setting up a rivalry for your brain's attention.

"The way the brain works, you can only see one at a time, so you flip back and forth quickly," Bliss-Moreau tells WebMD. The amount of time you look at each image is not typically under your conscious control.

For the study, the researchers first showed the participants pictures of faces while describing positive, negative, or neutral things about what the person in the picture had done.

Negative comments included such information as "threw a chair at his classmate." Positive comments included "helped an elderly woman with her groceries." An example of a neutral comment was "passed a man on the street."

Participants next were shown two images -- one a face and the other an image of a house. It was only possible to look at one at a time. The participants pressed a key on a keyboard when the image they saw switched from one to the other.

They looked longest at the faces associated with negative gossip.

"The key finding is that if a face has been paired with negative gossip, you see it for longer compared to the house," Bliss-Moreau says.

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