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Emotionally charged images influence people more than words

A new study from the University of California San Diego has revealed that subtle, emotionally charged images appearing on a billboard or a television screen can have a profound effect on our behavior.

A research team led by Piotr Winkielman conducted previous research which demonstrated that images of happy or scowling faces have an impact on how individuals behave. For the current study, the team set out to observe responses to other images and words in addition to pictures of faces.

“We wanted to compare two major kinds of emotional stimuli that people encounter in their life: words and pictures, including those of emotional faces and evocative images of objects,” said Winkielman. “We also tested if it matters whether these stimuli are presented very briefly or for a longer period of time.”

Study participants were instructed to classify objects, faces, or words on a computer screen. The researchers planted brief flashes of faces, pictures, or words that were either positive or negative into a series of emotionally neutral images displayed in rapid succession. After observing the images, the individuals were provided with soft drinks and told to drink as much as they desired.

One experiment compared the effect of emotionally charged words, such as “panda” and “knife,” with the influence of happy and angry facial expressions. A second experiment analyzed the effect of words with images of objects that stimulate emotion, such as a gun or a cute dog.

The results of the study were consistent with the previous research. Participants drank more after seeing happy faces and less after seeing angry faces. The individuals also drank more after seeing positive objects compared with those who viewed negative objects. Positive words did have any effect on how much soda the individuals consumed.

“We found that emotive images of objects altered the amount that participants drank, with ‘positive’ objects increasing consumption and ‘negative’ objects decreasing it,” said Winkielman. “But people were not swayed by emotional words, which were somehow powerless — even though the words were rated to be as emotive as the pictures.”

The experts were surprised to find that images which were nearly invisible and only shown for 10 milliseconds had the same effect as clearly visible images that were shown for 20 times longer.

“In our experiment, the duration of the emotional cue did not matter for its ability to influence consumption,” explained Winkielman. “This echoes some previous studies, however we need stronger evidence to confidently claim that fleeting images work as well as more noticeable images in altering behavior.”

The study is published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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