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What triggers negative reactions?

Why do politicians want themselves photographed with babies? Why do sex and violence sell at the box office? Why do people pay more attention to bad news than good, even though they often say they want to hear more of the latter? Part of the answer may be that some information grabs people's unconscious attention without their being aware of it, says Stanford University psychologist Felicia Pratto, who studies automatic evaluation--unconscious mental categorization of people and objects as positive or negative, good or bad.

She and Oliver P. John of the University of California-Berkeley have discovered that this automatic processing is biased to pay more attention to negative stimuli than to positive ones. Negative words, for example, interfere more with conscious thinking than positive words do. Pratto calls the bias toward the negative "automatic vigilance" and believes it is an evolutionary adaptation of the species to protect individuals from immediate threats. Words that have to do with reproduction--such as babies and sex--are the only category of positively connoted nouns they have found that grab as much attention as negative nouns.

These unconscious judgments serve as an input to deliberate processing later, such as when a voter is trying to decide between candidates for public office. Her research found that this automatic evaluation goes on without the individuals' awareness of even having observed the objects they have evaluated.

In one experiment, people were asked to name quickly the color of type flashed on a computer screen. These colored letters formed words that widely are regarded as either negative, positive, or neutral in meaning. Subjects consistently took fractions of a second longer to name the color when the words were negative, such as miserly or dishonest. These subjects were not aware that it had taken them longer and said they didn't remember seeing the words. When pressed to try to recall them, however, they consistently recalled more negative words than positive ones. "This suggests that the attention-grabbing power of negative information facilitates learning," Pratto indicates. "People's greater attention to negative information may protect them from immediate harm, but it may also contribute to prejudice and conflict in social interaction. It could explain why unfavorable information about individuals and stereotyped groups is often noticed and remembered better than favorable information, even when the social perceiver is not intentionally processing this information."
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Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Date:Apr 1, 1993
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