Academic journal article Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

Danger and Usefulness: An Alternative Framework for Understanding Rapid Evaluation Effects in Perception?

Academic journal article Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

Danger and Usefulness: An Alternative Framework for Understanding Rapid Evaluation Effects in Perception?

Article excerpt

Previous studies have shown effects of rated danger and usefulness on lexical access. All of them have used stimuli selected for connotations of danger and/or usefulness. Stimuli for the present lexical decision study were all of the nouns, verbs, and adjectives from the Balota et al. (2002) English Lexicon Project (subject to constraints relating to experimental control; none had anything to do with danger or usefulness). The interaction between danger and usefulness ratings previously demonstrated (Wurm & Vakoch, 2000; Wurm, Vakoch, Seaman, & Buchanan, 2004; Wurm, Whitman, Seaman, Hill, & Ulstad, 2007) was found for nouns, even when age of acquisition was controlled. It was also found for verbs and adjectives. The interaction is believed to reflect competing pressures to (1) avoid dangerous objects/events and (2) approach valuable resources. It may be a manifestation of the rapid evaluation effects pervasive in the literature. Post hoc analyses showed that danger and usefulness explain as much variance as valence and arousal, or evaluation, potency, and activity.

Research demonstrates pervasive effects of certain connotative dimensions on cognitive/perceptual performance. The most commonly discussed dimension is a good/bad dimension called evaluation or valence. It has anchored several theoretical accounts, usually in combination with other dimensions such as potency (strong/weak), activity (fast/slow), or arousal (e.g., Osgood, 1969; Robinson, Storbeck, Meier, & Kirkeby, 2004). Effects of these variables have even been observed in lexical decision and naming (Wurm, Labouvie-Vief, Aycock, Rebucal, & Koch, 2004; Wurm, Vakoch, & Seaman, 2004). This is surprising, because these are conceptualized as low-level perceptual tasks that should not show influences of semantic variables.

Wurm and Vakoch (2000) noted the interpretational ambiguity of a framework built around evaluation or valence: What does good mean? Good for whom, and to what end? Theorists long ago related valence to approach and avoidance behaviors, and to adaptiveness for survival (e.g., Lewin, 1935; Schneirla, 1959),' but how are we to think about items with good and bad connotations (e.g., electricity, elephant, pesticide, syringe)! We attempted to address the issue by measuring the constructs of danger and usefulness (Wurm & Vakoch, 2000). Why do we avoid things? One answer is because they are dangerous. Why do we approach things? Because they are useful in someway.

In a series of studies, we found that words with higher usefulness or danger ratings are recognized faster and more accurately, controlling for several variables (Wurm & Vakoch, 2000; Wurm, Vakoch, Aycock, & Childers, 2003; Wurm, Vakoch, Seaman, & Buchanan, 2004; Wurm, Whitman, Seaman, Hill, & Ulstad, 2007). These studies used auditory lexical decision, visual lexical decision, and auditory naming, so the effects generalize across tasks and modalities. The usefulness effect is robust, as is the danger × usefulness interaction: Increasing danger predicts faster RTs for words rated low on usefulness, but slower RTs for words rated high on usefulness. Our interpretation is that items high on usefulness and danger engage both approach and avoid response tendencies; the slowed RTs in this context reflect a response conflict

Although we demonstrated the effects with three different tasks, it is necessary to establish generalizability for several reasons. First, all the studies used the same 100 common nouns (or a subset of them). These stimuli were chosen to fill a 2 × 2 semantic space defined by high and low danger and usefulness. The generalizability of the results across words therefore remains unknown. It is crucial to understand whether danger and usefulness effects are as pervasive as evaluation effects seem to be, because I will speculate that danger and usefulness provide an alternative framework in which evaluation effects can be understood. …

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