Cognitive Daily

A few months ago, Jon Stewart opened the eyes of his Daily Show audience when he interviewed the author of the book On Bullshit. Viewers accustomed to hearing the familiar bleep when Stewart enters foul-mouth mode were surprised to find that the word came through completely uncensored. Stewart himself reveled in his new freedom, repeating the word “bullshit” dozens of times over the course of the interview. It was difficult not to notice the word every time he spoke it.

Adam K. Anderson of the University of Toronto, who specializes in studying attention, wondered if negative words like “bullshit” were more likely to attract our notice even during times when we’re normally distracted. He designed a version of the attentional blink paradigm to include three types of words: neutral (bread, branch), negative (blood, beaten), and negative-arousing (bitch, bastard). The words were rated by a panel of volunteers for negative value and arousal to ensure that the categories were accurate.

Attentional blink research has found that when people view a series of words presented rapidly and try to identify two words that are different from the rest (e.g. a different color or meaning from the other words in the series), they fail to recall the second word if it is displayed during a short span (about 200 to 500 milliseconds) after the first one. In Anderson’s version of the task, participants had to recall the two green words in a list of black words, displayed slide-show fashion for a tenth of a second each. The first green word was neutral, and the second green word was either neutral, negative, or negative-arousing. Here are his results:

i-c7d35480fa580f99d9080beec3600bb0-swear1.gif

When the second green word was neutral, the standard result for attentional blink occured: when the second word was displayed immediately after the first, recall was relatively accurate, but if it was two to four places after the first, recall suffered, before finally increasing above 90 percent accuracy after seven or so places. Negative words showed less attentional blink, and for negative-arousing words, the effect was nearly absent. So despite the fact that we usually don’t notice distinctive words when they are displayed so soon after another, we do notice taboo words in the same circumstances.

But is it the fact that these words are negative that causes us to notice them, or is it arousal? Anderson generated a new set of words in three new categories: neutral (crowbar, square), positive (champ, sweet), and positive-arousing (condom, sensual). This time, he modified the attentional blink task—instead of noticing two green words, participants had to identify a first “word” that was just a sequence of letters (LLLLLLLLL, VVVVVVVVV) colored white, along with the second green word, chosen from the neutral, positive, and positive-arousing lists. The other words in the list were displayed in different (non-green or white) colors. Here are the results:

i-fd229275aecf4499102cd1ff4a153db0-swear2.gif

Because the task was modified, the data follows a different pattern. When the green word immediately followed the set of white letters, accuracy was the worst. Accuracy steadily improved until the fourth position, when it topped out near 90 percent. But otherwise, the results followed a similar pattern to the negative words: less attentional blink for positive words, and almost none for positive-arousing words.

So though we do notice negative-arousing words like Jon Stewart’s favorite, “bullshit,” more often than neutral words, we also notice positive words. Positive or negative, arousing words are the most noticeable of all. So what causes us to notice these words? Anderson has some answers, but they’ll have to wait until the next Cognitive Daily post. Come back next week and read all about it!

Anderson, A.K. (2005). Affective influences on the attentional dynamics supporting awareness. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 134(2), 258-281.

Comments

  1. attention

  2. #2 Rich...!
    December 14, 2005

    While slightly off topic in terms of how people notice swearwords, I use them in business daily as a tactical sales tool, I’ve written a bit about it here:

    http://www.helloworldblog.com/2005/01/strategic_swear.html

    To me it’s an issue of exploiting context, everyone swears, they just dont usually do it in first time business meetings. By creating an environment in which it’s okay to swear, I’m putting people in a place that’s more personal, that helps us big time.

    There are of course limits, but I believe it works…!

  3. #3 Dave Munger
    December 14, 2005

    Rich, that’s an interesting observation—you’re right that it’s a somewhat different phenomenon, though. One of the many fascinating aspects of Anderson’s study is that the effect carries on, even when people see many, many taboo words. It’s not that one word “breaks the ice” and then people just relax and carry on. The effect continues, every time a taboo word is seen.

  4. […] Potty-mouth your way to the center of attention […]

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