Putting Your Intuitive Feelings into Words Can Change Your Preferences

Putting Your Intuitive Feelings into Words Can Change Your Preferences

Psychology February 16, 2012 / By Elisabeth Norman
Putting Your Intuitive Feelings into Words Can Change Your Preferences

What are the consequences of having to justify one’s intuitive preferences before making a decision?

Putting our feelings and emotions into words is often a good thing. For example, verbalizing unpleasant negative emotions may reduce the strength of the emotional response and thereby contribute to psychological well-being.

We should perhaps be more cautious when it comes to putting more subtle, “intuitive” feelings into words. A study by Ayumi Yamada published in Journal of Experimental Social Psychology in 2009 showed that when people are asked to verbalize reasons for why they like or dislike a piece of art this may change their subjective preferences.

The experimental design was quite simple. Each participant was shown two paintings by the artist Piet Mondrian. Some participants were then asked to choose the one they liked the most, and some were asked to choose the one they disliked the most. One of these paintings (a) ("Woods near Oele") was representational/figurative, and the other (b) ("New York City") was abstract/non-figurative.



There was only one catch: Before choosing a painting, participants in a "verbalization" condition had to describe the reasons for why they either liked or disliked each of the two paintings. The other participants were not asked to priovide any reasons.

Yamada found that those participants who were asked to provide reasons for liking the paintings before choosing the painting they liked the most, more often preferred the representational painting. How can this be explained? One interpretation is that it is easier to provide reasons for liking a painting that contains many recognizable elements because such a painting is easier to describe verbally. Questionnaire results from the same participants confirmed that people did indeed find it easier to come up with reasons for liking or disliking the representational painting than the abstract one. However, because people are not always aware of their preferences and of how these preferences are formed, verbal descriptions do not necessarily reflect one's true preferences in an accurate way. As pointed out by Yamada, "Because it is difficult to determine the exact causes of their preferences, a mere increase in the availability of their vocabulary may not result in fuller descriptions of them. Instead, it is possible that acquiring more relevant vocabulary could be a potential catalyst for generating a confusing set of reasons."

Interestingly, half of the "verbalizers" in Yamada's study were asked to provide reasons for not liking the paintings (rather than reasons for liking them), and were asked to select the painting they disliked the most (rather than the one they liked the most). How did this influence their subsequent preferences? These participants were in fact more likely to say that they disliked the representational piece. This may also be explained in terms of ease of verbalization - it should be as easy to come up with reasons for not liking a representational painting as it is to come up with reasons for liking it.

It was concluced that "the figurative qualities of representational art help people to verbalize their reasons, which could be potentially and increasingly biased, and cause them to change their preferences in line with these reasons".

Effects of verbalization on cognition and behaviour has been extensively explored by Jonathan Schooler and colleagues within the literature on so-called "verbal overshadowing". Verbal overshadowing refers to “the phenomenon in which verbalisation negatively affects performance on a task related to the verbalised material”, and the phenomenon has been explored in a broad range of contexts and domains. The results of Yamada's study are consistent with the results of a classic study by Wilson and colleagues, where verbalization increased people's tendency to select a humorous poster more often than an art poster, and where verbalization was associated with lower reported satisfaction about one's choice.

Chin and Schooler present three theoretical accounts of verbal overshadowing effects. According to the content account, verbal overshadowing is caused by aspects of the contents of verbalisation, for example that the verbal description does not accurately reflect the detailed properties of the perceptual experience being described. An alternative explanation is that verbalization causes a processing shift, from a more holistic and global processing style to a more analytical and local processing style. The phenomenon may also be explained in terms of a so-called criterion shift account, according to which verbalization leads to more conservative responding. According to Chin and Schooler, no single factor can account for all forms of verbal overshadowing - it is perhaps more likely that different mechanisms operate under different conditions.

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