Although Freud’s theory of human psyche is almost 100 years old and is rarely taken seriously by experimental psychologists nowadays, his basic insight continues to be proven right by the most cutting edge experiments in social sciences. Freud’s fundamental insight was that our consciousness is all but an island surrounded by vast sea of unconsciousness that constantly shapes our thinking and behavior in ways we rarely are cognizant of. The study by Phaf and Rotteveel (2009), researchers at University of Amsterdam, Netherlands, recently came across another manner in how we tend to be unaware of source of our thoughts and feelings as they found out that simply looking at an arrow pointing right implicitly induces positive affect and looking at an arrow pointing left induces negative affect.
The setup of the study was simple as a total of 60 participants were individually seated 80cm away from a screen and were asked to keep their hand on a button located between two other buttons equidistant from each other, one above and one below. All participants were given one of two instructions. Instruction A asked participants to press upper button whenever they saw an arrow pointing right and lower button when they saw an arrow pointing left. Instruction B asked participants to press lower button when they saw an arrow pointing right and upper button when they saw an arrow pointing left. Phaf and Rottevel (2009) were most interested in observing flexion and extension of arms since these two movements have long been known to be indicative of feelings of approach and avoidance (Frijda, 2007).
The results of the study confirmed hypothesis posited by researchers as looking at an arrow pointing right led to faster flexion responses than an arrow pointing left and looking at an arrow pointing left led to faster extension responses than looking at an arrow pointing right. Additionally, with arrows pointing right the flexion responses were carried out more accurately than with arrows pointing left and the exact opposite was true with extension responses.
There are several possibilities about why arrows pointing right led to positive affect and vice versa for arrows pointing left. One reason may be that since participants were Dutch and Dutch is written from left to right, exposure effect played a major role (Zajonc, 1980). Exposure effect in general states that the more we are exposed to something the more we like it. This is one of the reasons why people fall in love with those who are around them all the time. Exposure effect is potentially applicable here as reading and writing Dutch from left to right may have influenced participants to perceive arrow pointing right as having positive affective value.
Another interesting possibility for explaining this result is that arrow pointing right in many of our electronic devices serves as a button which, when pressed, rewards us with music and video games. The play button on video game consoles resembles an arrow pointing right and the same is true for the play button on most MP3 players. Therefore, the arrow pointing right having positive affective value might simply be a product of cultural conditioning.
Frijda, N.H. (2007). The laws of emotion. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Phaf, R.H., & Rotteveel, M. (2009). Looking at the bright side: The affective monitoring of direction. Emotion, 9, 729-733.
Zajonc, R.B. (1980). Feeling and thinking: Preferences need no inferences. American Psychologist, 35, 151-175.