May 20, 2011 at 9:46 AM ET
If you haven't been able to tear your eyes away from all the Sperminator stories this week, new research suggests a reason why: When you've heard negative things about a person, his face is more likely to catch your eye. Finally, science provides an excuse for all the time you waste on celebrity gossip sites.
"What we know about someone influences not only how we feel and think about them, but also whether or not we see them in the first place," write the study authors, led by Lisa Barrett, a Northeastern University psychologist. Most of us believe that what we see influences what we feel -- but in this case, what the volunteers felt about a person's face influenced whether they saw it at all.
Here's how they did it: Researchers showed participants two pictures, one in each eye. "To understand the experiments, you’ll need a little background information: When I show you two pictures, one in each eye, you will see only one of them. That's just the way the brain works," Barret explains. "It might flip back and forth, but you will only see one at a time. It’s involuntary."
They showed participants an image of a neutral, androgynous face in one eye, and an image of a house in the other. If they'd told the volunteers something negative about the face -- for example, that the person threw a chair at a classmate -- the volunteers were more likely to focus on the face than if they hadn't been told any gossip. "There is something special about this negative information -- you’ll be more conscious of a face when you know something bad about it," Barrett says. "So gossip has an effect on how your visual system works."
The findings also reveal some surprises about how our visual system works: Past research has suggested that it doesn't matter if you dislike -- that shouldn't influence whether you see it or not. But this study suggests the opposite.
Also, it tells us something surprising about how the visual system itself works. Scientists have found that when you show separate images to the two eyes, as we did in these experiments, it is supposed to be a test only of the visual information available – what you know, or your prior experience, is supposed to have no influence at all. If a picture is bright, or if it has high contrast (dark and light), you are more likely to see it. Whether you dislike something is not supposed to influence whether you see it or not, but it does.
It's a fun psych study -- but as for real-life implications, Barret suggests that this phenomenon may have evolved to protect us from liars and cheaters. "If we see them for longer, we can gather more information about their behavior," she says.
Follow Melissa Dahl on Twitter: @melissadahl.