Thursday, January 25, 2007

Negative Is Intense; Positive Is Frequent

Almost every time that I read a "classic," I am pleasantly surprised. Those old guys (and gals) were pretty damned smart.

I'm not talking about Homer.

I'm talking about research.

I was preparing for my undergraduate research methods class on Wednesday, and I needed a nice, simple research concept to illustrate theories and hypotheses.

The problem in mass communications, however, is that there are insufficient theories, and many of those that exist are bad. And I couldn't invest an entire class period explaining the theory. It was supposed to be about the concept of theories.

All of a sudden, the "mere exposure effect" popped into mind. I've talked about it a lot, but I am never read the seminal work. Thanks to the Internet, I had the piece within a few minutes. Officially, it is:

Zajonc, R. B. (1968) Attitudinal effects of mere exposure, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 9(2), 1-27.

And it's awesome to read. Several studies. Very clever. Even used skin conductance.

The gist is that if I show you something with no pre-existing semantic attachments, the mere exposure to the stimulus will create positive affect toward it. They did this with made-up words and Chinese characters (among non-speakers).

For several stimuli, there was an almost linear increase in positive attitudes withe the logarithm of frequency exposure. So, if you saw the Chinese character 5 times, you attributed positive meaning to it. However, if you saw it 25 times, you attributed even more positive meaning.

All of which is cool. But intermixed in the article was an even cooler finding, which I had never heard about. If you take some corpus of language, the good words appear more often than the bad.

For almost ever pair of words tested in a semantic differential (e.g., good _:_:_:_:_:_:_ bad), the positive word was far more frequent in the lexicon than the negative word.

Too, cool, right? We know that "negative information weighs more heavily upon the brain," but positive information weighs more frequently upon the brain.

But have we all become cynical bastards since 1968? To test this, I used my new favorite tool, the trend search. I did a trend search for "good" and "bad." The results are below. So even though the blogosphere is often thought to be reserved for rants and political attacks, we still say "good" more than twice often than "bad." It's a fine day to be a scientist, friends.

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Blogger Harsha said...

The relationship between exposure and attitude is inverted bell shape though. Exposure over 25 times started to give way to less favorable attitudes if I remember that study right.


8:25 PM  
Blogger Harsha said...

oops, i meant bell shaped..not inverted. i ma little drunk. don't tell anyone ;)

8:26 PM  

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