Last updated February 7, 2018 at 4:30 pm
It appears not only that a picture is worth a thousand of a writer’s words, but also that the picture’s impact can be almost instantaneous.
New research suggests that nearly invisible images shown for as little as 10 milliseconds can stimulate human responses but that words – even emotive words – have nowhere near the same effect.
In previous work, Psychologist Professor Piotr Winkielman and colleagues from the University of California, San Diego, had reported that showing brief images of happy faces to thirsty people led them to drink more of a beverage immediately afterwards, whereas images of scowling faces led them to drink less.
Their new study takes things a step further.
“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,” Winkielman says.
“We also tested if it matters whether these stimuli are presented very briefly or for a longer period of time.”
People drink more after seeing happy faces
To do this they asked undergraduates to classify objects, faces or words shown in quick succession on a computer screen; most were emotionally neutral, but there were brief flashes of faces, pictures or words that were positive or negative. Participants were then given a soft drink and allowed to drink as much as they liked.
The first experiment compared the effect of emotive words, such as “panda” (positive) and “knife” (negative), with that of happy (positive) and angry (negative) facial expressions. The second compared the effect of emotive words with images of emotionally charged objects, such as a gun or a cute dog.
As in previous studies, participants drank more after seeing happy faces than after seeing angry faces.
They also drank more after seeing positive objects than after seeing negative objects. In contrast, positive words did not increase consumption.
“We found that emotive images of objects altered the amount that participants drank, with positive objects increasing consumption and negative objects decreasing it,” Winkielman says. “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.”
Surprisingly, images shown for only 10 milliseconds had the same effect as clearly noticeable images shown for 200 milliseconds.
Words that conjure up pictures
“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 behaviour.”
What’s the explanation?
The researchers hypothesise that emotionally charged pictures may speak more directly to us than words, which can be nuanced and ambiguous, and may require more thought before they affect us.
“We know from our other research that words in sentences are emotionally impactful, but why?” asks Winkielman. “Is it because they can conjure up images?”
The paper recently published by Frontiers in Psychology.