One of stand-up comic George Carlin’s most famous routines was the seven words you can’t say on TV (obviously, not safe for work). He repeated the words over and over, and it was hilarious — especially back in the days before most people had cable. These days we’ve become desensitized to those words, and it’s hardly surprising any more to see them laced into casual conversation.
Or is it?
One test of our ability to ignore words is rapid serial visual presentation, or RSVP. In RSVP, you’re shown a rapid sequence of words or images — one about every tenth of a second. Your job is to pick out a particular type of word from the sequence — colors, for example. I’ve made a quick movie to illustrate how it works. Watch carefully as the words flash by. This movie has three separate sequences, each preceded by the text “Ready.” Your job is to pick out the names of colors (brown, purple, yellow, and so on) from the sequence. One color will flash somewhere in the middle of each sequence, for a total of three colors named. Ignore all the other words.
Click here to view the movie (QuickTime required)
Did you spot all three colors? Make a note of the colors you spotted (even if it’s less than three); I’ll give the correct answer later in this post.
A team led by Karen Arnell showed students volunteers a similar set of movies, asking them to identify the colors as they flashed by. Like you, they were told to ignore all the other words. The key to the experiment actually happened a few frames before the color word was displayed. Anywhere from 1 to 8 frames before the color flashed, a key distracting word appeared. The distractor could be a random neutral word, a negative word (Broken, Feeble, Guilt), a positive word (Beauty, Sunny, Leisure), or an arousing word, like a sex word or one of Carlin’s seven you can’t say on TV (Clitoris, Shit, Orgasm).
Researchers have previously found that distracting words that were related to the words being searched for can cause an “attentional blink”: if you’re searching for tools, then “carpenter” would cause you to miss “hammer” a few frames later. Arnell’s team wanted to know if other types of words could cause a similar phenomenon. This graph shows the results:
The volunteers were significantly less accurate when arousing words preceded the color words they were searching for. The effect extends for just under a half a second after the arousing word appears. By contrast, there was no difference in responses to positive and negative words compared to neutral words. This is a classic attentional blink response. The students themselves rated the words for how arousing and positive/negative they were (since some words could be both positive and arousing, for example). Positive and negative ratings had no relationship to attentional blink, only arousal.
But perhaps the students were only distracted by the arousing words because they were surprised. Since such words are generally taboo in a laboratory/university setting, maybe they just need a little time to get used to the idea.
In a new experiment, Arnell’s team repeated the procedure, but this time they showed half students the list of distracting words in advance. To maximize exposure to sexual/taboo words, only two types of distractors were used: a set of 12 words related to music, and 12 taboo words. Each of the words was seen ten times, for a total of 240 trials. In every trial, the distracting word appeared three frames before the color word the students were searching for. Would the attentional blink diminish over time? Here are the results:
All the way through 9 repetitions of the experiment, viewers experienced attentional blink for the sex words and not for the music words. Only in the final repetition was there no significant difference in accuracy between the sex-word distractors and the music-word distractors. In other words, sex words are very hard to ignore. It made no difference whether students saw them in advance; the results were nearly identical for both groups.
In both experiments, the viewers were significantly more likely to remember having seen the arousing words than any other words, despite being instructed to ignore them, and despite the words only flashing by for about 1/10 of a second. The researchers say it’s likely that consciously processing those words momentarily distracts viewers from their assigned task, and that’s why the attentional blink occurs.
Now, about the demonstration at the start of the post — the correct answer is green, blue, red. Did you see all three? Did you notice the word “dildo” in the second sequence? (That’s the only sequence where we included an arousing distractor.) If our demo reflects Arnell’s team’s work, it’s likely that you noticed “dildo,” and more likely that you missed “blue” than “green” and “red.”
Karen M. Arnell, Kassandra V. Killman, David Fijavz (2007). Blinded by emotion: Target misses follow attention capture by arousing distractors in RSVP. Emotion, 7 (3), 465-477 DOI: 10.1037/1528-3522.214.171.1245