The power of a careless whisper

‘Oh my god, are they having a thing then? Talk about sleeping your way to….’ All heads turned as Will entered the room. The awkward silence that followed made him realize that he was the subject of this conversation. He knew his rapid rise to management level might make some resent him, but this gossip was vicious.

“A rumor had circulated that I was having an affair with my female boss,” Will explained. “Needless to say, the HR department had to investigate and [my boss] and I couldn’t have closed door meetings.” The irony is that Will is gay, although his reserved nature meant that few of his colleagues knew. Even when it became common knowledge that he was gay, things didn’t get much better. ”It became really awkward when I then hired a gregarious employee who embodies the phrase ‘out and proud’. It led to another HR investigation and I constantly felt like I was being scrutinized.”

These unfounded rumors that circulated profoundly affected Will’s relationship with his colleagues. Gossip can certainly taint the way you look at someone, but researchers have now discovered that gossip actually affects what people and things we are aware of.

The researchers used a simple but powerful visual trick, allowing them to work out what visual information is important to us. When a different image is presented to each eye, instead of seeing the two images combined, one dominates. This means that you are only conscious of one image at a time. “For the first 50 or 60 years of studying this, researchers thought that the perceptual features of the images, the colours, how many edges and so on, would affect which image was dominant. However, in the last 10 years researchers realized there are other things which determine which image dominates,” explained Erika Siegel of Northeastern University, one of the study’s co-authors.

To test whether gossip affects what we see the group created a series of pictures which showed people with neutral expressions on their faces. They then showed these pictures to the separate eyes of volunteers, having previously given them a piece of gossip about the person in each image. The study concluded that, when the image showed someone that the researcher had said something negative about, such as “threw a chair at his classmate”, that particular face was more dominant. In order words, when there is bad gossip about someone, people become aware of them where they may not have consciously noticed them before.

So why does negative social information have such a profound affect on what we see? “There is probably some benefit in having negative social information be salient to our visual system,” explained Erika Siegel. “It’s not a conscious process, but it could serve a protective function in allowing us to be able to recognize things which are dangerous.”

Professor Robin Dunbar, anthropologist at Oxford University, has written extensively about the evolution of gossip. He believes that language, and in particular gossip, allowed us to increase the size of our social groups to the expansive networks we have today.  “Grooming will support groups up to 50 [individuals], and it seemed that we evolved laughter and music to bridge the gap above that. But these were only effective up to group sizes of about 100; we needed language after that.”

Gossiping allows us to share information about our social networks without the need for actual physical contact, permitting us to use the limited time we have for social activities in a more effective way. However, it has acquired negative connotations, distracting people from this social role.  “A mechanism designed to assist with social bonding does not specify what kind of information you [exchange]. In other words, you can use the capacity for propaganda that language provides for negative propaganda.”

Erika Seigel explained that gossip isn’t actually a bad thing, it is just part of our everyday lives. “There is a misconception that the way we see the world is true to what is there; but what we learned about people 5 hours ago affects the way we see them forever. These feeling are used as a normal part of everyday processing. The reason that gossip has a ‘bad name’ is part of why it’s so important. It’s very salient to us, we only need to hear the information once to remember [it].”

However, the fact that gossip does have such a strong influence can have a huge negative impact on people’s lives, as demonstrated by Will’s story. “While [talking about what happened] all seems quite funny now, at the time I was really concerned and I limited my interactions with other staff members. For example, I never attended social functions with any of my employees.” So, although gossip might be essential to our daily lives, we should remember what a powerful social tool it actually is.

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