Gossip effect only negative?

 In consciousness, emotions, social neuroscience

In a recent article in Science (also reported here), researchers report that faces coupled with negative stories (e.g. having thrown a chair at a classmate) led to an increase in visual attention to that person. Other kinds of stories, from neutral to positive, did not produce such an effect. This is taken as an indication that negative gossip – and not positive such – is associated with the change in visual attention.

It also makes sense. Knowing who’s misbehaving is of great value in any kind of social interaction. You’ll know who to avoid. Gossip thus makes us learn, through others, who’s not trustworthy or who you should just avoid.

But hang on…would that not make sense for the reverse effect, too? Let’s not make logical fallacies of fitting nice evolutionary stories into evidence, disregarding problems with such interpretations. From an evolutionary approach, it would make just as much sense to say that gossip about who’s trustworthy and nice should also be important. Should your visual attention not be just as affected by positive gossip?

Going into the article itself, it struck me that there might have been a bias in the mere arousal one gets from reading the positive and negative stories. So the example given in the article (and in the media) was: “helped an elderly woman with her groceries”.

I’d say that there is a huge difference in mere arousal between the positive and negative examples: throwing a chair and helping with groceries differ more than the mere value of their action. They also differ in terms of the relative effect of their behaviour. Is throwing a chair equal to helping with groceries? I beg to differ, and there was no additional information in the main article. As a reviewer, I’d suggested seeing the full list of statements. The example is biased, and may be the cause of the difference seen between positive and negative gossip effects.


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