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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

SEX!

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.

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