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While work by people such as Diederik Stapel has been deemed fraudulent, research into the effects of contexts on thinking and behavior has almost come to a halt. There has been much skepticism towards whether there are any effects at all. Could it still be the case that context can affect our emotional responses and judgments of specific items? If so, what are the causal mechanisms?

A recent publication from my hand has just come out in the Journal of Neuroscience, Psychology and Economics, and is entitled “Effects of Perceptual Uncertainty on Arousal and Preference Across Different Visual Domains“. The paper describes an interesting finding: simple, unpredictable sounds sequences can affect judgment of simultaneously presented visual materials such as brand logos and abstract art.

The work was inspired by a recent study by Herry et al (2007) which had demonstrated that unpredictable sounds lead to an increased engagement of the amygdala and increased avoidance behavior, both in rodents and humans. The question we were interested in was whether such effects also would hold for more complex stimuli, such as cultural artifacts, including brands.

In the study, we showed either a previously unknown brand logo (either a beer, financial, cosmetic or electronic brand), or a piece of unknown abstract art. One second prior to the image, subjects heard a simple sound sequence that was either in a predictable or an unpredictable manner. Here are two examples:

Here is the predictable sound sequence: 1000 (opens in new window/tab)

And here is an example of an unpredictable sound sequence: 1021 (opens in new window/tab)

The sound started one second before the image and lasted throughout the whole 3-second image presentation. After this, subjects were asked to judge the image.

The results showed that items that were associated with unpredictable sounds received significantly lower ratings than those that were presented with unpredictable sounds.

While this is an interesting effect in itself, we went a step further: we tested whether unpredictable sounds were associated with increased arousal. By measuring pupil dilation using high-resolution eye-tracking, we found that indeed, unpredictable sounds were associated with increased arousal, and related to lower ratings.

Interestingly, this negative relationship between arousal seemed to be related to the first second, that is, when only the sound was present. Once the image got on, there was a positive relationship between pupil dilation response and preference.

This study suggests that contextual “noise” and unpredictability can affect first impressions and judgments of novel stimuli, and that it can do so across different visual domains. Thus, one take-home message would be to avoid contextual unpredictability if you are in need of good first impressions – and who’s not in need of that!



4 Responses to “Can context affect preference?”

  1. Mark H. says:

    What is the difference between “associated” and “presented” in your experiment? The following text left me confused after the short introduction:
    The results showed that items that were associated with unpredictable sounds received significantly lower ratings than those that were presented with unpredictable sounds.
    Sorry if i’m being thick headed,

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