By Wednesday I usually have a pretty good haul of e-mail from readers disputing points made in my Monday column. This week's topic was hard to hate. Who gets angry over smell receptors and asparagus urine? So instead of posting feedback, I thought I'd explain why I chose to write about the evolution of our olfactory sense, while passing up a sexier finding you might have seen about gossip. According to various news sources, we evolved to focus on negative gossip because it helped our ancestors avoid bad people.
The story concludes with this take-home message: "Our visual system is wired to focus on those we've heard negative gossip about, helping us steer clear of possibly harmful individuals."
The problem with that spin is that evolutionary spin is that the scientific study in question didn't say anything about our evolution. The experiment, which was reported in the journal Science, was interesting and said something about the way our brains focus on subjects of negative attention. But it didn't support the conclusion that gossip is or ever was anything but self-serving to the person spreading it.
The researchers studied gossip, of sorts, using a device that can present different images to each eye. Thanks to our binocular vision, people see one image at a time, and they tend to switch back and forth by a mechanism that's not under conscious control. The assumption here is that what their brains choose to focus on longer is determined by the importance of the image or to some evolutionary significance.
With this set-up, the psychologists presented subjects with pairs of images – one eye got a house and the other eye got a human face, either associated with good, neutral or negative gossip. The good gossip was on the order of "he helped an old lady across the street." The neutral consisted of statements such as "he opened the curtains", and the bad included such tidbits as, "he threw a chair at a classmate." Then they measured how long subjects saw the face as opposed to the house.
Which face would you guess got the most visual attention? Of course it's the chair thrower. As any storyteller knows, we humans like good stories and good stories need some conflict. I don't know about you but my natural reaction to "He threw a chair at a classmate," is not, "I'll avoid him", but "What happened? Let's hear the story!"
Not too surprisingly, the psychologists found people's visual systems were wired to focus on the subjects of the intriguing negative statements more than boring neutral and positive ones. It would have been interesting to see what happened if they compared subjects of boring negative gossip, such as "He threw a wrapper out his window," to interesting positive gossip, such as "He was one of the Navy SEALs on the mission to kill Bin Laden."
The other odd thing about this story is that unlike the negative "gossip" used in the experiment, the vast majority of gossip on this planet doesn't warn anyone about anything. Remember junior high? Most gossip consisted of statements like: "I saw Faye's blouse in the locker room and it had a JC Penny label." How dangerous is that? Will clothes with uncool labels spontaneously explode killing hundreds of innocent kids?
There's nothing in this study to demonstrate that gossip as we know it was any less self-serving 500,000 years ago. Or that we listen to negative gossip out of self-protection rather than envy and Schadenfreude. Perhaps skilled gossip spreaders thrived because they knew which rumors could truly slay their enemies.
To be fair to the researchers, they never explicitly said their results back the claim that we evolved to be gossipy because it helped our ancestors avoid dangerous types. Instead, they quote something akin to this from a 2005 paper by evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar, but what Dunbar did to reach this conclusion isn't stated. Probably not field work in an American Middle School.
But as the story got reported and re-reported and tweeted and talked about over the water cooler, the experiment became proof that gossip is good and helped our ancestors warn others about bad people. At each step the story got a little more distorted from the original paper, kind of like gossip.