THURSDAY, May 19 (HealthDay News) -- Gossip can be malicious and mean, but it also may serve a protective purpose, forcing the brain to focus on people who might be threatening, a new study suggests.
Volunteers shown pictures of otherwise unmemorable faces lingered longer over pictures of people about whom they'd heard unflattering information, researchers say.
When shown images in which they had been told something positive or neutral about the person, the volunteers spent less time looking at them. That also was true for faces they observed for the first time without knowing anything about them.
From a practical standpoint, it suggests that negative gossip helps people better predict who might hurt them, say researchers from Northeastern University in Boston.
"It is easy to imagine that this preferential selection for perceiving bad people might protect us from liars and cheaters by allowing us to view them for longer and explicitly gather more information about their behavior," they wrote.
Gossip, whether "delicious or destructive," serves a function, according to the study, to be published online May 19 by the journal Science. In lieu of direct experience, social tittle-tattle allows people to learn about others across a very wide group, the team say. That, in turn, gives people cues on who to befriend (or not) without having to actually have to spend lots of time with them first.
The study consisted of two experiments designed around a visual phenomenon called "binocular rivalry," in which one image is shown to one eye and a different image is simultaneously displayed to the other eye. Rather than seeing two images superimposed, one is seen for a few moments, then it morphs into the other, then it reverts to the first, and so forth.
In the first experiment, 66 participants were shown bland faces that were paired four times with a descriptio
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