If your eyes are drawn to the covers of the latest gossip magazines and the juicy details of which starlet backstabbed another, you can blame our ancestors.
Turns out, our visual system is wired to focus on those we've heard negative gossip about, helping us steer clear of possibly harmful individuals.
"What you learn about people in your environment actually changes how much you actually see them," said study researcher Eliza Bliss-Moreau, a research fellow at the California National Primate Research Center at the University of California, Davis. [Why We Gossip]
For the study, subjects had one eye presented with an image of a house and the other presented with an image of a person they had heard positive, negative or neutral gossip about. They were told to press buttons on a keyboard depending on which they were focused on. (Called binocular rivalry, the amount of time each image is registered is typically not under a person's conscious control.)
When the face was of someone they heard negative gossip about, their focus stayed on them longer — an effect not found with positive or neutral gossip. Researchers also tested subjects' memory of the gossip when shown the face it had been associated with in order to ensure that the negative gossip wasn’t simply more memorable than positive or neutral gossip.
Irving Biederman, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Southern California who was not involved with this research, said that while the popular notion may be that we push down hurtful or unpleasant information, this study and other research in the area show the opposite.
"Rather than suppressing it or repressing it, because it was negative, rather than having that response to it, you are more sensitive to information that's potentially threatening to you," Biederman told LiveScience. [Gossip & Other Destructive Human Behaviors]
A next step for researchers, he said, is to determine how this happens in the brain, and how our visual system could be linked with our internal thoughts.
Did our ancestors gossip?
While the reasons negative gossip draws attention are still unknown, researchers noted that it matches up with evolutionary findings in people and in animals.
"As biological agents trying to survive in complex environments, we are predispositioned to avoid things that do us harm, and even avoid things that feel unpleasant," said Bliss-Moreau. "It may be the case that these neural mechanisms that primes us to things that do us harm are also responding to social stimuli."
And it's possible that some have learned to take advantage of our attraction to negative gossip, hence those gossip-saturated magazine racks in supermarket checkout aisles.
"If you're a starlet and you're out on the town doing crazy things and being written up in newspapers, that may actually mean people see you more and will pick you out more," Bliss-Moreau said.
But, she cautioned, real-world studies are still needed to confirm the lab finding.
"Of course, we're talking about really briefly presented visual stimuli," Bliss-Moreau said. "The effect of this sort of learning in terms of long-term attitudes and beliefs is yet to be explored."
The study, by Bliss-Moreau and Eric Anderson, Erika H. Siegel and Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett of Northeastern University, will be published this week in the journal Science.