In contrast to abstract trait words which describe people's general personality, gossip is about personal affairs of others. Although neural correlates underlying processing self-related trait words have been well documented, it remains poorly understood how the human brain processes gossip. In the present fMRI study, participants were instructed to rate their online emotional states upon hearing positive and negative gossip about celebrities, themselves, and their best friends. Explicit behavioral ratings suggested that participants were happier to hear positive gossip and more annoyed to hear negative gossip about themselves than about celebrities and best friends. At the neural level, dissociated neural networks were involved in processing the positive gossip about self and the negative gossip about celebrities. On the one hand, the superior medial prefrontal cortex responded not only to self-related gossip but also to moral transgressions, and neural activity in the orbital prefrontal cortex increased linearly with pleasure ratings on positive gossip about self. On the other hand, although participants' ratings did not show they were particularly happy on hearing negative gossip about celebrities, the significantly enhanced neural activity in the reward system suggested that they were indeed amused. Moreover, via enhanced functional connectivity, the prefrontal executive control network was involved in regulating the reward system by giving explicit pleasure ratings according to social norm compliance, rather than natural true feelings.
Keywords: Celebrity; Gossip; OPFC; Reward system; Self; sMPFC.