If you get a bad reputation, you're going to get noticed. That little bit of homespun wisdom might actually become a verifiable scientific fact, as new research indicates people really do prefer to look at people with bad reputations.
Researchers at Northeastern University decided to test how gossip affects our vision through what's known as binocular rivalry, which is where each eye is presented with a different image and the viewer alternates which one he or she is focused on. This alternation, and the duration of how long the viewer remains focused on each image, is something the viewer is consciously aware of but doesn't really have control over. Generally, the brain will switch between the two images every few seconds.
The researchers took 66 volunteers and presented them with photos of thirty faces, each of which was paired with a sentence that described a social behavior. These behaviors were either positive, negative, or neutral, and including everything from help an elderly lady cross the street to throwing a chair at somebody. Then the volunteers were shown each of the faces paired in binocular rivalry with a house, so that their eyes flipped between the face and the house.
To determine which image they were looking at, the volunteers pressed buttons to indicate which they were currently focused on. The researchers found that the length of time spent looking at the face images was significantly longer when it was one that had previously been paired with a negative description. The study suggests our brains are predisposed to focus on those we associate with bad behavior, which perhaps makes some sense - it's a good survival mechanism to be aware of people who could pose a potential threat.
What's particularly interesting is that these faces represented people that the volunteers didn't actually witness doing anything bad - indeed, they were likely aware that these scenarios were all just hypothetical - and yet even this relatively weak association between bad behavior and specific faces made their brains more interested in those people. Score one for the power of gossip, I suppose.