Do certain scandalous stories you’ve heard ever cause you to stare at someone for just a little bit too long when you see him or her out at a party? Perhaps you feel bad about this behavior (you should; it’s rude), or maybe you’re an unrepentant stink-eyer? A new study published by the journal Science might not condone your catty glares, but it’s given us a better undertanding of why we do such things.
For this experiment, researchers at Northeastern University in Boston showed subjects pictures of otherwise unremarkable faces and told them positive, negative, or neutral information about each one. Subjects’ eyes lingered much longer on photos of potentially horrid people than they did on any of the others. In other words, gossip literally affects how you see a person. The consequences of this might be conducive to nasty social interactions nowadays, but researchers believe a preoccupation with social information actually helped early humans survive and pass this trait down to their offspring, hence preserving it via natural selection.
“I was actually pretty excited to see this paper,” says Frank McAndrew, a professor of psychology at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill. “For years, people like me have been saying that our intense interest in gossip is not really a character flaw. It’s part of who we are. It’s almost a biological event, and it exists for good evolutionary reasons.”
Even when primitive humans lived in small groups, they needed to know things like who might be a threat and who was after a particular mate, McAndrew says. And learning those things through personal experience would have been slow and potentially dangerous, he says.
So McAndrew says one shortcut would have been gossip.
“People who had an intense interest in that — that constantly were monitoring who’s sleeping with who and who’s friends with whom and who you can trust and who you can’t — came out ahead,” he says. “People who just didn’t care about that stuff got left behind.”
So basically, your shameful Perez Hilton addiction exists because it once helped us survive. Feel free to stare and gossip to your heart’s content; if you do it enough, you will become a success. A lonely, shit talking success nobody likes, but a success nonetheless. It’s science!