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See Inside March / April 2010

Accentuating the Negative

Our brain responds more strongly to negative emotional cues than to positive ones

Consider the following statements: “War continues.” “No sign of peace.” Does our brain treat these two sentences differently, despite their identical meaning? A new study suggests it does. British researchers showed that we are better at detecting words that carry negative meaning than those that are positive. Volunteers were exposed to a word for a fraction of a second—too short a time to consciously read the word—and then asked to guess whether the word was neutral or had emotional content (either positive or negative). The subjects were most accurate at detecting the negative words.

The mechanisms underlying this phenom­enon are not clear, but lead author David Carmel, who is now a postdoctoral researcher at New York University, speculates that the brain might process negative stimuli faster than positive ones. A different explanation could be that information processing is equally fast for both types of information but that negative words better capture our attention, causing the processing to start earlier.

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