Twist people's minds to make them think disgusting words are nice

Illustration for article titled Twist peoples minds to make them think disgusting words are nice

Words don't just convey a meaning, but a feeling as well. Pleasant words like "ice cream" make us feel happy, while unpleasant words like "toe jam" make us feel queasy. But there is a way to make people experience bad words as good, if only briefly.


In one particular experiment, dealing with subliminal words, subjects were shown "target" words on a screen, then asked to rate them as positive or negative. What the subjects didn't know was that just after the words they consciously registered, words too quick for them to consciously see flashed on the screen. Sometimes these quick words matched the target words, like "kitten" and "nap." Sometimes they clashed, like "laughter" and "bomb." People were slower to rate target words when those words were paired with secondary words that clashed with their meaning.

A second experiment was performed. This time two target words flashed on the screen, to be followed by one subliminal positive or negative word. This time, the positive or negative word had a twist. Two good words — "tulip" and "humor" — would be followed by the word "tumor." That's not a good word, but people still responded to the experiment as if the positive target words were backed up by another positive word. It's possible that the people saw the arrangement of letters as not the word itself but as a combination two pleasant words. The sounds, or the arrangement of letters, overrode the word's actual meaning. In the right context, words that we know are bad can seem good.


The experiment reminds me of the terrible words that I have really liked over the years. For example, before I found out that a veruca is a wart, I thought it had a very nice, vaguely classy sound to it. I only knew it as the upper-class girl from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and although I could see she was no prize when it came to personality, I liked her dress style and her forthright attitude. (And I sympathized with her desire to get one of those geese that would lay chocolate golden eggs.) I can't shake the pleasant associations that I have with the word "veruca," even though I can't enjoy it as a word anymore.

Are there any words that you think don't fit their meanings? (And don't you think the experimenters should have at least tried a combination of "fun" and "luck" to see what happened?)

[Via Parts Outweigh the Whole (Word) In Unconscious Analysis of Meaning]

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