Let's face it -- we gossip. Positive, neutral or negative gossip about people is spread. More often by some people than by others, but nonetheless, it exists. We even gossip about people we don't know. It turns out that our brains more readily remember unfamiliar faces when they are associated with negative gossip when compared with neutral or positive gossip. In this recent study in Science Magazine (Science 332: 1446-1448 June 17, 2011), authors, Anderson et. al., show that negative gossip actually results in longer visual focus on that face. This increases our ability to recall and remember that face.
Normally, when an emotionless and unfamiliar face is shown to us, the focus of our eyes switches back and forth between each eye. We don't perceive this switching because approximately equal amounts of time are divided between each eye and we are looking at one image. Scientists tested if this eye dominance was altered at all if the faces shown were associated with different forms of gossip. They hypothesized that gossip may increase the amount of time focused on a particular image, leading to increased memory and recall.
By showing an facial image to one eye and a separate (non-facial) to the other eye -- they used a house image -- scientists found that the dominance of the images that is seen switches back and forth between the eyes. However, when a face is associated with negative information, or gossip, more time is spent looking at that image than the non-facial image. This is not true for positive or neutral-associated faces. Does this mean that we learn better from negative information? Perhaps. But, what it does indicate is that our brains do not retain or focus on faces that associate with neutral, or non, information as readily as those that are associated with negative gossip.