At last, science has explained the continued popularity of reality television, gossip magazines, and New York daily newspapers. “A new study reveals that, given a choice, people will stare longer at the faces of people they’ve heard bad things about,” io9 reports. How did science crack this self-evident code?
They showed participants pictures of “neutral” faces - people who were ordinary-looking strangers to the viewers. Some of these faces were paired with phrases that contained “negative social information,” such as “She is a cheater,” or “She threw a chair at somebody.” Others faces were paired with neutral or positive information. Then the researchers showed the participants these same pictures in a “binocular rivalry” test … People who saw a neutral face in one eye, and the face of one of the “liars” or “cheaters” in the other, always wound up watching the lying cheater for much longer. The decision wasn’t a conscious one — the participants’ brains were active in multiple regions, leading the participants to perceive the subjects of gossip more easily.
Ultimately, scientists believe this is actually evolutionary, a good thing for humankind: If we stare at alleged jerks for longer, we’ll “gather more information about their behavior” and protect ourselves from them, thus increasing our chances of survival, the study suggests. In any case, attention addicts, pictured, seem to have already proven this equation: continuing to draw negative attention to themselves so that we keep, you know, staring. On the other hand, io9 posits that a truly devious criminal — for instance, many popular mean girls in high school — would simply spread negative gossip about others, distracting us while picking our pockets. And now we’re exhausted.