Gordon Smith

Brain narrows focus to dwell on taboo words: Study

According to a new study, the outrage we feel when we read something narrows not only our vision but also our mental scope, as the brain donates its function solely to the offending word. Moist.

 

 

 

If you’ve been online since the dawn of the internet, chances are you’ve read something that made you go “well, that’s offensive.”

Maybe it was a meme made in poor taste, or a rant littered comment. Either way, you supped the elixir of rage. As it turns out, there may actually be a very good reason why those comments keep your fists clenched.

A new paper by the University of Illinois suggests that the effects – both psychological and physiological – of profanity and other ‘taboo’ words on people who read or hear them may be in large part to an individual’s likelihood of being offended.

‘In the real world, taboo words are uttered or written by people in specific situations,’ explains Kiel Christianson, a professor of educational psychology at the University.

‘Taboo’ words are words that are restricted in their societal use. Much of the prior research on the effects of taboo words involved recording participants’ reactions to viewing isolated taboo or neutral words, rather in their more natural situations.

‘Depending on the identity of the speaker and the appropriateness of the situation in which they say it, a given taboo word may have stronger or weaker psychological and/or physiological effects on the listener.’

Christianson and his co-authors conducted two experiments, using eye-tracking software to monitor people’s attention levels and memory while they read sentences containing swear words of euphemisms for such words. Kiel hypothesised that the more surprising the use of profanity was, the more attention people would direct to it.

The ‘surprising’ aspect was defined by the speaker or the situation of use.

He also hypothesised that a reader’s likelihood of being offended by taboo words would ‘mediate’ their attention, thus affecting how quickly they read each sentence, their ability to recall a probe word preceding the taboo word in every sentence, or both.

 

They hypothesised that a reader’s likelihood of being offended by taboo words would ‘mediate’ their attention, thus affecting how quickly they read each sentence, their ability to recall a probe word preceding the taboo word in every sentence, or both.

 

In one part of the experiment, 80 native speakers of American English read a series of sentences on a computer monitor that depicted people they viewed as likely or unlikely to use either swear words or their more socially acceptable euphemisms in specific circumstances, where swearing might be viewed as appropriate or in appropriate – people they dub ‘saints’ or ‘sinners’.

They also completed a survey that assessed their attitudes toward people who swear, which was used to measure each person’s likelihood of being offended by profanity and the circumstance in which they might see it as acceptable.

‘The eye-tracking software allowed us to see where and for how long readers’ attention was directed,’ Christianson said.

‘According to binding theory, one of the two popular theories about taboo words’ effects, participants’ recall should have improved when they read sentences containing taboo words.’

‘However, according to global resource theory, the other current popular theory, their memory should have been poorer when a sentence included a taboo word.’

Readers were found to have devoted more attention to the taboo words than their non-taboo compatriots, the eye-tracking software showed. However, context mattered.

 

Participants who were expected to be offended spent a greater time focused on the probe words, and their ability to recall them improved.

 

When ‘saints’ used taboo words in taboo-appropriate situations, readers spent more time reading both the sentence and the taboo word itself, and they saw an improvement in their ability to recall the probe words accurately.

‘Taken together, the results seem to support both global resource theory and binding theory, but only to an extent.’

‘Our finding that a taboo word draws attention – either at the word or sentence level – when a ‘saint’ utters it in a taboo-appropriate situation is not accounted for by either theory.’

In a second experiment conducted by Christianson, all of the speakers in sentences were ‘saints’, and readers were alerted at the beginning of each sentence to the taboo status of an upcoming word.

This was done by using phrases like, ‘everyone was shocked when …’

Participants who were expected to be offended spent a greater time focused on the probe words, and their ability to recall them improved.

That is except for in surprising contexts, when they spent more time looking at the taboo words of euphemisms.

‘Participants’ memory and attentional resources were diminished as their attention as increasingly allocated to the taboo word.’

‘Conversely, as their likelihood of taking offence decreased, the details became more memorable due to the emotionally condition but non-threatening taboo word.’

‘An utterance’s shock value rises as a function of situational factors and an individual audience member’s propensity for offence.’

With neither binding theory nor global resource theory individually accounting for taboo words’ effects in the contexts studied, Christianson proposes combining them into a new theory called situation speaker-hearer individual difference theory.

‘Strictly speaking, the predictions need not be limited only to taboo words.’

‘However, given the pervasive negative associations and learning situations surrounding taboo words, they are the most likely type of words to display the interactive pattern of pragmatic and emotion-driven effects we found.’

Gordon Smith

Journalist by day, cunning linguist by night. A passion for politics, hypnotically involved in human rights. An Australian born with a Japanese tongue, hoping to hold the big wigs in government to account.

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