The detectability of high and low intensity emotionally toned words was investigated in a signal detection paradigm using college students as subjects. Individually set thresholds kept word identification to an average of 16 percent. The results indicate a complicated pattern of interactions among intensity, gender, positive or negative tone, and hemispheric presentation. Greater detectability was found for right hemisphere presentations and low intensity words. In addition, positive words showed greater detectability than negative words. The findings are discussed in terms of factors that affect automatic attitude activation.
Previous research, using a signal detection paradigm, has shown that positive words have a greater detectability than negative words and that this difference is influenced by hemispheric presentation and participant's gender (Harring & Snodgrass, 1996). In these studies detectability was measured with stimulus presentation rates below the perceivers' threshold for conscious identification. The differences in preconscious detectability were interpreted in terms of the automatic activation effect (Fazio et al., 1986).
The automatic activation effect has been explained in terms of an unconscious conditioned response. Bargh & Pietromonaco (1982) proposed that after repeated pairings of a stimulus and the emotional response that it elicits, the emotional response becomes automatized in that it occurs unintentionally and uncontrollably. They argue that once this occurs, the emotional response can be elicited by stimuli presented outside of conscious awareness. Thus, the response becomes automatically activated by not only the original stimulus, but also by stimuli with similar emotional tones. The results of priming studies (Bargh, 1988) provide evidence that stimuli with similar emotional tones must be linked in the semantic network and are processed by way of a spreading activation model (Hermans et al., 1994).
The nature of the links in the semantic network and how those links influence the degree of the automatic activation effect have been investigated in a series of studies. Fazio et al. (1983) proposed two processes that might determine the strength of attitude activation. One process is the number of times an individual is exposed to the association of the stimulus and the emotional response. Obviously, greater exposure increases one's familiarity with the pairing. The second process is based on whether the individual's experience with the stimulus is direct or indirect. For example, individuals are more likely to have direct experience with anger than with decapitation. In addition, Bargh (1984) added the intensity of the stimulus event as a factor that influences the degree of automatic responding. Stimuli that evoke a more intense emotional reaction, such as the word "vomit," may result in a stronger automatic activation effect. However, there is disagreement about the degree to which the automatic activation effect is based on normative (Chaiken & Bargh, 1993) or idiosyncratic evaluations of stimuli (Fazio, 1993). The difference between normative and idiosyncratic evaluation can produce opposing predictions for responses to specific stimuli. Although normatively a rose has positive connotations in American culture, an individual may have negative associations with this object. Thus, it is unclear whether cultural or individual associations lead to stronger automatic activation.
Pratto & John (1991) investigated the effect of the evaluative tone of stimuli (good vs. bad stimuli) on the automatic activation. Their subjects exhibited a type of "automatic vigilance" that led to greater interference by negative stimuli on a color naming task and better recall of these stimuli. They concluded that negative stimuli are more likely to automatically activate attention compared to positive or neutral stimuli. Our studies, on the other hand, have repeatedly shown greater detectability and identification of positive stimuli (Harring & Snodgrass, 1994; …