Why a Bad Reputation Gets You Noticed

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Having a bad reputation may not be desirable, but it does make you more likely to be seen — literally. A new study finds that, all other things being equal, people are more likely to pay attention to faces that have been associated with negative gossip than those with neutral or positive associations.

The study contributes to a body of work showing that far from being objective, our perceptions are shaped by unconscious brain processes that determine what we “choose” to see or ignore — even before we become aware of it. The findings also add to the idea that the brain evolved to be particularly sensitive to “bad guys” or cheaters — fellow humans who undermine social life by deception, theft or other non-cooperative behavior.

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Led by Northeastern University psychology professor Lisa Feldman Barrett, researchers conducted two experiments. In the first, 61 people were asked to view images of faces. Some faces were paired with negative gossip, such as a statement saying that the person pictured had “thrown a chair at a classmate.” Others were paired with neutral (“passed a man on the street”) or positive (“helped an elderly woman with her groceries”) information.

Then, the researchers employed a technique that exploits what’s known as “binocular rivalry” to study how gossip affects vision. This involves presenting each eye with a separate image, and allowing the two to compete for attention — only one of the two images will consciously be seen at any given time.

So the participants were presented with an image of a face in one eye, and a picture of a house in the other. Compared with faces that had been previously connected with neutral or positive information, those that had been linked with negative gossip were perceived for longer, the researchers found. (In order to avoid providing emotional cues, all the faces wore neutral expressions.)

“[G]ossip does not just impact how a face is evaluated — it affects whether a face is seen in the first place,” the researchers write.

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So why would we be especially attentive to people with a bad reputation? In general, the brain prioritizes negative information over positive — you’re more likely to survive if you mistakenly respond to a stick as though it were a snake than if you make the opposite error. But because, historically, humans have been the biggest predators of other humans (as well as their greatest source of support), signs of human treachery should be even more likely to capture our attention.

Indeed, previous research suggests that the better angels of human nature — kindness, altruism, compassion — may have survived evolution only because of our ability to detect and punish those whose behavior was not cooperative.

The authors conclude: “It is easy to imagine that this preferential selection for perceiving bad people might protect us from liars and cheaters by allowing to us to view them for longer and explicitly gather more information about their behavior.”

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And so, while gossip may not be nice, it may have once been necessary.

The study was published in Science.