Episode 22: Affect, Cognition, and Awareness

Quick post to talk about affect. Affect is primarily a verb meaning make a difference. This is different from effect which essentially means result (the effect of the great pitching was a win).

Affective primacy hypothesis asserts that positive and negative affective reactions can be evoked with minimal stimulus input and virtually no cognitive processing.

It’s mind control okay? It’s evil subliminal messaging and imposing bursts to your brain so fast it doesn’t have time to adequately process them. Let’s get into the details with an oldie but a famous paper by Murphy and Zajonc called “Affect, cognition, and awareness: Affective priming with optimal and suboptimal stimulus exposures.”

They set out to see if they could change people’s mood without them really being aware of what was happening.

Study 1 had two conditions. Half of the subjects were exposed to the optimal exposure condition, and half to the suboptimal exposure condition.

The “cover” of the study was that the subjects would be presented with an assortment of Chinese characters to rate. But there was a secret the subjects didn’t know. Right before they were to rate the Chinese characters, a slide of a face would be flashed. The faces were either male or female faces expressing happiness or anger.

In the optimal condition the faces were show for 1000ms (1 second). People were able to clearly see the primes but were told to ignore them. In the super-secret suboptimal condition, the faces were flashed for only 4ms.

The theory is that because the faces were flashed so fast in the suboptimal condition, only 4 ms, that the processing happens entirely unconsciously. Your brain has synapses that need to fire before you recognize something. And by the time you can react it’s already gone so the image stays in your unconscious processing.  

Here’s the results:

These bars in the chart are how highly the Chinese characters were rated. The black bar is when a negative face (mad) was shown right before the ranking. When a positive face (smiling) was shown right before is the white bar.

In the optimal conditions (1000 ms) we have fairly close parity. However, in the suboptimal where the faces were only flashed for 4ms, we have a noticeable reaction. There’s quite a large difference where the mean rating for faces shown after a negative face was only 2.75, where as if a positive face was shown before the rating was almost 3.50.

What an interesting result. The researchers dove deeper.

Maybe it’s a fluke? Maybe people just didn’t like faces lording over them.

So in Study 2 they re-did Study 1, but this time people rated only if they thought the object was “good” or “bad”. Now these are random Chinese characters. There should be no association one way or the other. Results? Same as Study 1.

We see a little movement in the optimal (1000 ms), but a huge difference in the suboptimal (4 ms). When people were flashed with a little something and are not able to process it fully, it makes a difference somehow.

Does this work with other primes besides happy or sad?

In Study 3 subjects were asked to rate the size of an object, where 1 was small like a mouse, and 5 was big like a tree.

However, instead of being primed with a face, subjects were primed with either a large shape or a small shape. Again, the optimal condition got the picture for 1000 ms, and the suboptimal only got the shape for 4ms.

The results were very significant (with an F value of over 20 for you econ kids out there). But different than what the researchers were expecting:

Again, small primes lead to smaller overall ratings, BUT ONLY FOR THE OPTIMAL CASE (1000 ms). There was no change for the suboptimal (4 ms).

It is this author’s opinion that this is because of the fusiform facial area, or FFA. What we now know is that there’s a small little part of your brain whose job is to identify faces incredibly fast, and “feel” what that face is feeling (it’s located in the mid brain near other emotional processing).

When you see a face you instantly process if the expression shows that the person is happy, sad, worried, etc… From an evolutionary perspective the FFA may be incredibly important to our social skills. There’s a theory that the reason people with autism have trouble identifying the moods of others is that their FFA is not connected in the same way to the amygdala where emotions are processed.

People with autism can “see” the face, but not “feel” the emotion. Our FFA is so good it can instantly see a face even when the image is not actually a face. Cloud in the sky? Stain on some bricks? Smiley face? Frowny face hand drawing? Emoticon? Front of a car? Dogs. Cats. Cartoons. Our FFA lights up and fires insanely fast.

Sorry for the tangent but that’s the important part here. The FFA is designed to basically be a fast pre-processing area. It fires very quickly.

To process other attributes in a picture other than a face with emotion it takes more time. The image has to be rolled around through the visual cortex and then to somewhere else, then something else etc… It takes more than 4ms. So it “doesn’t register” with the brain.

One quick note to point out is that I am not saying that the FFA is done firing in 4 ms, rather that the FFA only needs 4 ms exposure time to fire and process, whereas other areas of the brain may require more exposure time. It is also possible that it’s the amygdala that is working super quickly with short exposure time as well.

When an image is around longer, as in the 1000 ms optimal condition, it mucks around with the framing parts of our brain. We are susceptible to framing. And if you show something that’s large, and then ask me is this squiggle large, I’ll lean towards yes? So you see quite a large jump in the optimal case from about 3.1 size rating when prompted with the small image, up to 4.0 size rating when prompted with the large.

Study 4 also followed Study 3, but this time were asked to judge the symmetry of objects, so 1 would be not symmetrical, 5 would be a circle.

Again, there was no difference in the suboptimal (4 ms), but a significant different in the optimal (1000 ms). 

From this the researchers guess that geometric shapes also require a longer exposure time to have an emotional stimulus.

Study 5 tested masculine vs. feminine, and again, there was no change in the suboptimal which was primed for only 4ms, but a shift in rating something masculine vs. feminine in the optimal.

So general conclusions then. I quote form the paper:

“Primes shown as briefly as 4ms can allow subjects to discriminate between faces that differ in emotional polarity. Distinct faces that do not differ in affective polarity, even if they differ in such obvious ways as gender, cannot be accurately discriminated from one another if they are exposed for only 4 ms.”

What can this tell us? If you want to use evil subliminal messaging, use faces with expressions. This is why faces are so powerful because they are processed so quickly. They are “lower down the brainstem” (I didn’t invent that phrase, I borrowed it). Faces are more primal, and we have less control over our reaction to them.

If you want to use other pictures to help frame emotions you need to have their attention for at least 1 second. And I know that sounds short but in a world of advertising, a “one-mississippi” can be quite a while.

We are social creatures and our brains are evolved to put an emphasis on social cues, food, danger, and sex. Don’t underestimate how strongly they get our attention.

Murphy, S. T., & Zajonc, R. B. (1993). Affect, cognition, and awareness: Affective priming with optimal and suboptimal stimulus exposures. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology64(5), 723-739. doi:10.1037//0022-3514.64.5.723

Episode 23: The Best (And Only?) Way To Change Group Behavior With Ideas
Episode 21: Monkey (Unconsciously) See, Monkey (Unconsciously) Do

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