Tuesday, December 3, 2019

A message coming from behind is interpreted as more negative than a message presented in front of a listener; social information presented from behind is associated with uncertainty and lack of control

Rear Negativity:Verbal Messages Coming from Behind are Perceived as More Negative. Natalia Frankowska  Michal Parzuchowski  Bogdan Wojciszke  Michał Olszanowski  Piotr Winkielman. European Journal of Social Psychology, 29 November 2019. https://doi.org/10.1002/ejsp.2649

Abstract: Many studies have explored the evaluative effects of vertical (up/down) or horizontal (left/right) spatial locations. However, little is known about the role of information that comes from the front and back. Based on multiple theoretical considerations, we propose that spatial location of sounds is a cue for message valence, such that a message coming from behind is interpreted as more negative than a message presented in front of a listener. Here we show across a variety of manipulations and dependent measures that this effect occurs in the domain of social information. Our data are most compatible with theoretical accounts which propose that social information presented from behind is associated with uncertainty and lack of control, which is amplified in conditions of self‐relevance.


General Discussion

Rear Negativity Effect in Social Domain
The present series of studies document a “rear negativity effect” – a phenomenon where perceivers evaluate social information coming from a source located behind them as more negative than identical information coming from a source located in front of them. We observed this effect repeatedly for a variety of verbal messages (communications in a language incomprehensible to the listeners, neutral communications, positive or negative words spoken in participants’ native language), for a variety of dependent variables (ratings, reaction times), and among different subject populations (Poland, US). Specifically, in Study 1, Polish subjects interpreted Chinese sentences as more negative when presented behind the listener. In Study 2, Polish subjects evaluated feedback from a bogus test as indicative of poorer results when it was presented behind, rather than in front of them. In Study 3, Polish subjects evaluated the Chinese sentences as the most negative when they were played from behind and when they supposedly described in-group (i.e., Polish) members. In Study 4, US subjects judged negative traits more quickly when the traits were supposedly describing self-relevant information and were played behind the listener.

Explanations of the effect

The current research extends previous findings that ecological, naturally occurring, sounds are detected quicker and induce stronger negative emotions when presented behind participants (Asutay & Västfjäll, 2015). Critically, the current studies document this effect in the domain of social information and show it to be stronger or limited to processing of self-relevant information, whether this relevance was induced by reference of messages to the self or to an in-group. Our characterization of the “rear negativity” effect in the social domains is compatible with several considerations and theoretical frameworks. Most generally, the effect is consistent with a notion common in many cultures that things that take place “behind one’s back” are generally negative. However, the accounts of why this is vary – ranging from metaphor theory, simple links between processing ease and evaluation, affordance and uncertainty theories, attentional as well as emotion-appraisal accounts.

Spatial metaphors. People not only talk metaphorically, but also think metaphorically, activating mental representations of space to scaffold their thinking in a variety of non-spatial domains, including time (Torralbo et al., 2006), social dominance (Schubert, 2005), emotional valence (Meier & Robinson, 2004), similarity (Casasanto, 2008), and musical pitch (Rusconi et al., 2006). Thus, it is interesting to consider how our results fit with spatial metaphor theories. Specifically, perhaps when people hear a message, they activate a metaphor and, as a result, evaluate the information as being more unpleasant, dishonest, disloyal, false, or secretive when coming from behind than from the front. Our results suggest that reasons for the rear negativity of verbal information go beyond simple metaphorical explanation. This is because this negativity occurs solely or is augmented for information that is personally relevant to the listener, and that it occurs even in paradigms that require fast automatic processing, leaving little time for activation of a conceptual metaphor. Of course, once the valence-to-location mapping is metaphorically established, it could manifest quickly and be stronger for personally-important information. In short, it would be useful to conduct further investigation of the metaphorical account, perhaps by manipulating the degree of metaphor activation, its specific form or its relevance.

Associative learning and cultural interpretations. The valence-location link could have metaphorical origins but could also result from an individual’s personal experiences that create a mental association (Casasanto, 2009). One could potentially examine an individual’s personal history and her cultural setting and see whether a rear location has linked to negative events. Specifically, everyday experiences could lead to a location-valence association. For example, during conversations an individual may have encountered more high-status people in front of her rather than behind, thus creating an association of respect and location. Or, the individual may have experienced more sounds from behind that are associated with criticism or harassment rather than compliments. Beyond an individual’s own associative history, there is also culture. For example, European cultures used to have a strong preference for facing objects of respect (e.g., not turning your back to the monarch, always facing the church altar). As a result, sounds coming from behind may be interpreted as coming from sources of less respect. More complex interpretative processes may also be involved. As discussed in the context of Study 3, hearing from behind from an out-group about one’s own group can increase the tendency to attribute negative biases to the outgroup. It can lead then to interpreting the outgroup’s utterances as being more critical or even threatening, especially when such utterances are negative (e.g. Judd et al., 2005; Yzerbyt, Judd, & Muller, 2009). However, these speculations are clearly post-hoc and further research is needed to understand the full pattern of results. Simila [cut here!!!!]

Fluency. One simple mechanistic explanation of the current results draws on the idea that difficult (disfluent) processing lowers stimulus evaluations, while easy (fluent) processing enhances evaluations (Winkielman et al., 2003). People usually listen to sounds positioned in front. So, it is possible that sounds coming from behind are perceived as more negative because they are less fluent (or less familiar). However, fluency, besides increasing the experience of positive affect, is also manifested through the speed of processing (i.e. fluent stimuli are recognized faster). Yet, it is worth mentioning that in Study 4 we did not observe the effect of location on overall reaction times. Moreover, previous research suggests that if anything, information presented from behind is processed faster (Asutay & Västfjäll, 2015). For these reasons, and because the effect is limited to self-relevant information, the fluency approach does not explain the presented effects. However, future research may consider a potential of fluency manipulations to reduce the rear negativity effect.

Affordances. Yet another possible explanation draws on classic affordance theory suggesting that the world is perceived not only in terms of objects and their spatial relationships, but also in terms of one’s possible actions (Gibson, 1950, 1966). Thus, verbal information located in the back may restrict possible actions to the listener and hence may cause negative evaluation. However, this explanation is weakened by our observations that reward negativity effect also appears when participants are seated and blindfolded, so they cannot see in the front. Further examination of this account could include a set-up that involves restricting participants’ hands or using virtual reality to manipulate perspective and embodied affordances.

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