Emotional words distract, but only when you're searching for meaning

ResearchBlogging.orgI attended an unusual middle school. It was designed on an "open concept," with the idea that there should be no walls between classrooms. Social pressure would keep the noise levels down, because if kids got too loud, then their peers in other classes would encourage them to hush up. This actually worked most of the time, but one day one of the English teacher's classes was getting out of hand, and after trying several ways to get their attention, she resorted to something a big more dramatic. In a very loud voice, she simply said


Her class, and several classes nearby, instantly stared at her in stunned silence. Calmly and quietly, she said "Now that I've got your attention..." and continued on with the lesson.

Clearly words like "sex" are effective at attracting hormonal pre-teenagers' attention, but they also work well for adults. Many studies have confirmed that strongly emotional words can distract attention from a number of tasks. But are emotional words always distracting, and is the distraction unavoidable?

Several studies have found that emotional words don't distract people from tasks that are especially demanding of their attention, but often in these cases the words are displayed at the edge of a computer screen, far removed from the task at hand.

Yang-Ming Huang, Alan Baddeley, and Andrew Young figured out a way to include distracting words at the center of focus during a task. They used a procedure called rapid serial visual presentation, or RSVP. We made an example of an RSVP movie when we discussed a study last March. Here are the instructions:

You'll see a random stream of pictures of office equipment, flashing by one every tenth of a second. Embedded in each stream are two pictures: First, a fruit, and then either a face or a watch. You'll be instructed whether to look for a face or a watch, and what to notice about it, before each stream.

Click here to view movie

Typically if you're asked to spot two items in an RSVP presentation, you'll miss the second one if it occurs between about 2/10 and 4/10 of a second after the first one, but not sooner or later. This phenomenon is called Attentional Blink -- a blind spot caused by the temporary distraction of seeing the first item.

What Huang's team did is slightly different. Their streams were simply random strings of letters and digits, with two words embedded in each stream. Then they asked students to look for words naming fruit as they flashed by. If a fruit word appeared, it was always the second word in a stream. The key was in the first word: half the time, this first word was a neutral word like bus, vest, bowl, tool, elbow, or tower, and half the time it was an emotional word like rape, grief, torture, failure or morgue. So a sequence might look like this:


And so on. The first word acts as a distractor: the students are looking for fruit words, but this is always a non-fruit word. The question is, are emotional words more distracting? If they are, then it should be harder to spot the fruit words that follow. The researchers showed 16 volunteers 128 such sequences, some with fruit words, and some without. They varied the lag between the distractor word and the fruit word. Were emotional words more distracting? Here are the results.


The graph shows accuracy at identifying fruit words. For both emotional and neutral words, there was no effect when the fruit word came at lag 1 (about 1/10 of a second after the distractor). At lag 2, there was no significant difference between emotional and neutral words -- in both cases, accuracy in identifying the fruit word was significantly lower than at lag 1. But at lag 3, respondents were significantly less accurate if the distractor was an emotional word compared to a neutral word. This suggests that emotional words indeed are more distracting: they cause a prolonged attentional blink compared to neutral words.

But what if the task is somewhat different? In a second experiment, students were asked to look for UPPERCASE words in an RSVP. The same distractors as before were used: half emotional words, and half neutral words, but printed in lowercase type. Only the second words, again the same fruit and non-fruit words, were in uppercase. Here are the results:


Again, the graph shows accuracy identifying the uppercase fruit words (results from non-fruit words were omitted so that the two experiments can be compared). This time, the distractor word made no difference. Emotional and neutral words were equally distracting, and the attentional blink lasted the same time.

The results were confirmed in three additional experiments: Emotional words were more distracting than non-emotional words when the meaning of the word mattered for the task. When respondents were searching for something else, like uppercase words or rhyming words, rather than words with a particular meaning, then emotional words were no more distracting than neutral words.

So in this task, emotional words only distract viewers when they are concerned with the meaning of the words. This suggests that we can sometimes filter out emotional words, but if the emotion conveyed is too close to the task at hand, it will always be distracting.

What does that say about my 7th grade class? Perhaps that if they're goofing off, it's probably got something to do with sex.

Huang, Y., Baddeley, A., & Young, A. (2008). Attentional capture by emotional stimuli is modulated by semantic processing. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 34 (2), 328-339 DOI: 10.1037/0096-1523.34.2.328

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Somewhat OT, but I went to an "open concept" high school, only in addition to no walls between classrooms, all the walls and ceilings were curved, so that sound bounced all over the place. Even though students were generally not all that disruptive, it was still quite an experience to be studying Latin with a Spanish class on one side and a French class on the other and the sound from the senior English class on the other side of the "pod" bouncing off the ceiling into your "classroom." My school district actually built quite a few open concept buildings, since that educational fad coincided with a population surge in my hometown.

Is such a broad conclusion warranted when the facts being used are language? What is half an emotional word? Who decides if a word is emotional at the start? Distracted from what? A nonsense task? A non-motivated task?

Are there practical observations that contradict or fail to affirm the broad conclusion? For an example, a teenager studying while watching TV or listening to radio?

And what factor is the age of the subjects? From what I see of teenage driving accidents, teenagers are quite easily distracted from an important task. Middle-schoolers I would guess even more so, depending on task and person.

The experiment must mean something, which is perhaps difficult to state without tedious qualifiers, and anyway it was interesting.

It does seem like an awfully broad conclusion. Did they only pick words that provoke a strong negative emotional response? What if they had picked words that probably provoke weaker positive emotional responses, like "love", "friend", "together", "happiness"? Did they actually measure emotional response? Surely it varies a lot by word and person.

Linguists loathe categories like "emotional words" or "analytic words". link