A picture might be worth a thousand words, but as German poet, novelist, and playwright Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said, “the written word has this advantage, that it lasts and can await the time when it is allowed to take effect.” How can you make your words not just last, but give the impact that you need when it comes to digital marketing? National Institute of Mental Health (NIH) and the Center for Emotion and Attention (CSEA) investigators Margaret Bradley and Peter Lang know that words matter and they developed a set of emotional ratings for over 1000 words the Sentiment Lexicon in the English language, from abduction to zest.
Digital marketers know that they are competing within a slim timeframe to grab a reader’s attention before their words are scrolled past. Consumers are more likely to share something that they have connected to emotionally. That means that marketers need to understand the emotions that specific words elicit. Different occasions will need a different set of words and corroborating emotions. Calls to action need words that express urgency, but a funny meme that you hope goes viral needs a lighter touch. A recent study has compiled a list of over 1000 words and given them a set of emotional ratings.
The Sentiment Lexicon
The goal of the normative emotional ratings was to develop a set of verbal materials that have been rated in terms of pleasure, arousal, and dominance. This ranking complements the existing collections of picture, International Affective Picture System (IAPS), and sound, International Affective Digitized Sounds (IADS), stimuli. All three lists, the Affective Norms for English Words (ANEW), IAPS, and IADS, were developed and distributed by the NIH through Bradley and Lang. Together the lists provide standardized materials that are available to researchers in the study of emotion and attention.
How are the words ranked?
Researchers used a simple dimensional view that assumes emotion can be defined as a coincidence of values on three different strategic dimensions. Those three dimensions included: affective valence, ranging from pleasant to unpleasant; arousal, ranging from calm to excited; and dominance.
To assess these three dimensions the researchers used an affective rating system called the Self-Assessment Manikin (SAM). SAM uses graphic figures comprising bipolar scales that depict different values along each emotional dimension. For example, to rank the pleasure dimension SAM ranges from a smiling, happy figure to a frowning, unhappy figure. To rank the arousal dimension SAM ranges from an excited, wide-eyed figure to a relaxed, sleepy figure. And to rank the dominance dimensions SAM ranges from a large in-control figure to a small dominated figure.
When filling out SAM a subject can bubble in the location that corresponds to any of the 5 figures on each scale or between any two figures. Combined, that allows for a 9-point rating scale in each of the three dimensions. There are multiple versions of SAM including a computer version as well as a booklet paper-and-pencil version.
Abduction to Zest
While there are over 1000 words included in ANEW, in general each experiment presented between 100-150 words. Each set of words was prepared on an 8 1/2 x 11 sheet of paper that listed the individual words in 4 columns and 14 rows, meaning each sheet of paper had 56 words. The words on each sheet were sequentially numbered in rows from 1 to n. For each set of words, two forms were prepared to counterbalance the order in which the words were rated and the items surrounding any specific word.
Subjects were self-paced as they rated each word based on pleasure, arousal, and dominance. Introductory psychology class students, in groups ranging in size from 8 to 25 and balanced for gender, participated as part of a course requirement. The words on the sheets were read in silence and then subjects bubbled in their emotional ratings on SAM. The three dimensions were unlabeled on the sheets and merely graphically rendered.
Work Quickly, Promptly, or Swiftly Please
While subjects were self-paced they were also asked to work rapidly and not to think too much about each word. Each group of 100-150 words was ranked within an hour. Those 100-150 words were each ranked for each of the three dimensions.
The graphical figures on SAM weren’t labeled pleasure, arousal, and dominance for the study. Instead pleasure was described as happy versus unhappy. At the happy end of the scale, synonyms for happy could be pleased, satisfied, contented or hopeful. The other end of that scale would be completely unhappy, annoyed unsatisfied, melancholic, despaired, or bored.
When giving instructions for the arousal dimension they were given the words stimulated, excited, frenzied, jittery, or wide-awake for one end of the spectrum, and for the opposite side of the scale they were provided with the descriptive words relaxed, calm, sluggish, dull, and sleepy. Finally, for the dominance dimension the scale ranged from influenced, cared-for, awed, submissive, or guided to influential, important, dominant, autonomous, or controlling.
When all the words were rated the list of words could be studied in a variety of ways. Lists were divided into male and female rankings and researchers even plotted the shape of the affective space that results when each word is plotted on a graph defined by its mean pleasure and arousal rating.
Knowing how words evoke emotion in readers can help writers become better at using the right words to get the best reaction. This is especially important when you’re trying to get someone’s attention online. Words matter, understanding the sentiment lexicon and then including powerful words in headlines or copy can get your business noticed on social media.