An arresting choice of words | Inquirer Business

An arresting choice of words

The image of a growling tiger may not seem very scary when it looks back at a person from a small section of a newspaper page, but it can be startling when it appears on a billboard overlooking the highway. Triggering such an emotional response to perceived threats or other similarly evocative images is thought to be linked to one’s survival instinct.

German researchers wondered if similar emotional responses could be generated from words rather than images. Consider that sometimes headlines are described as “screaming” at passersby to be noticed. The large font used is hard to miss from a distance, and the words are chosen to elicit interest and attention. What the researchers wanted to learn, however, was whether or not differences in font size play a role in provoking an emotional response.

“The power of large font size to enhance emotion effects may, for instance, be one reason headlines written in big letters are popular and evidently successful in the yellow press media,” they wrote in their study.


The role of movement


Be it written, spoken or gestured, language conveys and produces emotions. Some researchers believe body movements were the first method people used to get the message across to each other. Related to this idea, one of the studies expected to be presented at the Acoustics 2012 meeting in Hong Kong the week of May 13 involves the role of movement in conveying an idea being expressed out loud.

“Many scientists have argued that spoken language evolved from a gestural communication system—using the entire body—in our evolutionary past,” said neuroscientist Spencer Kelly of America’s Colgate University in a statement regarding the work done by researchers from the United States and the Netherlands. Kelly, who coauthored a paper on the topic that was published in April, added that “gestures still have a tight and perhaps special coupling with speech in present-day communication. In this way, gestures are not merely add-ons to language—they may actually be a fundamental part of it.”

Written words

Pictures and gestures are both visual cues, just like the written word, and evoke a range of emotional responses. For their own study, the German team asked several people to read a series of nouns off a computer screen. These words printed in Arial font had either positive, negative or neutral connotations and appeared twice in the data set, once in 28-point font size (about half an inch in height), and again in 125-point font size (about 1.5 inches tall). While they read, the researchers did brain scans of each volunteer, tracking the emotional impact of the words on the participants.

The results showed that when the study participants were reading the negative words printed in big font, their brain scans showed responses that started earlier and lasted longer compared to the positive and neutral words in the same size font, and compared to all three types of words that were printed in a smaller font.

“This finding points to the high relevance of written language in today’s society as an important source of emotional meaning,” the team wrote.


The German study appeared online May 9 in the journal PLoS ONE.

E-mail the author at [email protected].

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TAGS: communication, Research

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