The Power of Negative Gossip: Coloring How We See the World, One Rumor at a Time

Gossip: you can’t avoid it. And maybe, you shouldn’t want to. Scientists have argued that gossip is an important tool for social cohesion and information transmission, allowing us to function more effectively in an ever-larger society. Moreover, it’s an important tool for affective learning: it can give us a sense of who would make a good ally—or who we should avoid—even in the absence of direct contact. But can gossip influence our minds on a more profound level? Recent findings presented in this month’s Science suggest that yes, it can. Gossip, it turns out, can influence something as fundamental as visual processing – especially if that gossip is negative.


How gossip affects our actual perception of the world

In the study, researchers used a typical paradigm used to study visual processing, binocular rivalry. Binocular rivalry results from two different images (for instance, a tree and a cat) being presented to each eye. The images then compete for dominance, and we end up consciously seeing only one of the two images (for instance, the cat), while the other image is suppressed. But after a few seconds, the images flip: now, we see the tree, and the cat disappears. The process repeats, and we see a series of alternative pictures: cat, tree, cat, tree, etc. However, the two images are not necessarily given equal playing time. One might actually dominate and be visible for a much longer period of time than the other. Often, this happens because of simple physical characteristics of the image (i.e, luminance, contrast), or because of its content (for instance, emotional images tend to dominate over non-emotional ones).

In this case, subjects saw neutral faces, with exactly the same visual properties. These faces were paired with a house. In theory, neither image should have been dominant, and none of the faces should have stood out from one another. However, there was a crucial prior step. Each face had first been associated with a piece of gossip – either positive, negative, or neutral.

What happened? Faces that had been paired with negative gossip dominated far longer than any other stimulus. This was not true of either positive or neutral gossip. Hearing something negative about a person, then, can actually influence our basic visual processing, causing us to choose to focus on that person over other possible people (and objects).

The consequences of focusing on the negative

So, gossip—especially of the nasty kind—not only influences our perceptions in a more abstract sense (Who do we like? Who don’t we like? Who matters?), but also in a very literal sense, physically changing the way we see the world.

Is this a good thing? Some might argue that yes, it is. It could help protect us from people who do bad things: we focus on them for longer, learn more about them and their behaviors, and in so doing, are better able to deal with the consequences and identify similar bad events, like lying or stealing or cheating, in the future.

However, what about false gossip, or the malicious spread of rumors – something that has become increasingly widespread in the world of social media? Or even a simple mistake resulting from misinformation? We’d be more likely to hone in on that, too. And what we’d learn in that case would not necessarily be true or even helpful. And consider the person in question: the extra scrutiny that comes from our biological, physical focus on him because of the negative gossip comes at a high price to reputation – and one that can’t be undone by a simple addition of positive information, since, as the research has shown, positive information does not carry the same privileged weight. That makes remedying a mistake (or a malicious stab) all the more difficult.

The importance of being aware of gossip’s power over our minds

That last point holds even for true negative gossip. We might be able to correct something we did, or make up for it in some way, but the negative event will haunt us for far longer and will remain much more salient – something that’s especially true as our mistakes follow us in perpetuity in cyberspace.

And here’s the kicker: when we focus in on someone because of some negative gossip, whether it’s by actually looking at him longer in person, or choosing to read more about him online, we might not actually realize we’re doing it. That’s the power of simple visual processing. Something to remember the next time we do something gossip-worthy ourselves – or find ourselves drawn to some negative gossip on others.

A still from the film "We Became Fragments" by Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller, part of the Global Oneness Project library.

Photo: Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller / Global Oneness Project
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
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  • Before the hurricane season even started in 2020, Arthur and Bertha had already blown through, and Cristobal may be brewing right now.
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Welcome to Hurricane Season 2020. 2020, of course, scoffs at this calendric event much as it has everything else that's normal — meteorologists have already used up the year's A and B storm names before we even got here. And while early storms don't necessarily mean a bruising season ahead, forecasters expect an active season this year. Maybe storms will blow away the murder hornets and 13-year locusts we had planned.

NOAA expects a busy season

According to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, an agency of the National Weather Service, there's a 60 percent chance that we're embarking upon a season with more storms than normal. There does, however, remain a 30 percent it'll be normal. Better than usual? Unlikely: Just a 10 percent chance.

Where a normal hurricane season has an average of 12 named storms, 6 of which become hurricanes and 3 of which are major hurricanes, the Climate Prediction Center reckons we're on track for 13 to 29 storms, 6 to 10 of which will become hurricanes, and 3 to 6 of these will be category 3, 4, or 5, packing winds of 111 mph or higher.

What has forecasters concerned are two factors in particular.

This year's El Niño ("Little Boy") looks to be more of a La Niña ("Little Girl"). The two conditions are part of what's called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, which describes temperature fluctuations between the ocean and atmosphere in the east-central Equatorial Pacific. With an El Niño, waters in the Pacific are unusually warm, whereas a La Niña means unusually cool waters. NOAA says that an El Niño can suppress hurricane formation in the Atlantic, and this year that mitigating effect is unlikely to be present.

Second, current conditions in the Atlantic and Caribbean suggest a fertile hurricane environment:

  • The ocean there is warmer than usual.
  • There's reduced vertical wind shear.
  • Atlantic tropical trade winds are weak.
  • There have been strong West African monsoons this year.

Here's NOAA's video laying out their forecast:

But wait.

ArsTechnica spoke to hurricane scientist Phil Klotzbach, who agrees generally with NOAA, saying, "All in all, signs are certainly pointing towards an active season." Still, he notes a couple of signals that contradict that worrying outlook.

First off, Klotzbach notes that the surest sign of a rough hurricane season is when its earliest storms form in the deep tropics south of 25°N and east of the Lesser Antilles. "When you get storm formations here prior to June 1, it's typically a harbinger of an extremely active season." Fortunately, this year's hurricanes Arthur and Bertha, as well as the maybe-imminent Cristobal, formed outside this region. So there's that.

Second, Klotzbach notes that the correlation between early storm activity and a season's number of storms and intensities, is actually slightly negative. So while statistical connections aren't strongly predictive, there's at least some reason to think these early storms may augur an easy season ahead.

Image source: NOAA

Batten down the hatches early

If 2020's taught us anything, it's how to juggle multiple crises at once, and layering an active hurricane season on top of SARS-CoV-2 — not to mention everything else — poses a special challenge. Warns Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross, "As Americans focus their attention on a safe and healthy reopening of our country, it remains critically important that we also remember to make the necessary preparations for the upcoming hurricane season." If, as many medical experts expect, we're forced back into quarantine by additional coronavirus waves, the oceanic waves slamming against our shores will best be met by storm preparations put in place in a less last-minute fashion than usual.

Ross adds, "Just as in years past, NOAA experts will stay ahead of developing hurricanes and tropical storms and provide the forecasts and warnings we depend on to stay safe."

Let's hope this, at least, can be counted on in this crazy year.

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