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Effect of Words on Feelings and Emotions of People

The topic of the work is the effect of words on feelings and emotions of people. This is a hypothesis that was put by psychologists and put in the experiment. The main idea that underlies the study and experiment is that putting feelings into words is one effective way to reduce negative emotions and their long-term physiological consequences (Freud, 1933; Taylor, 1997).

There are some scientific evidences that when people put their feelings in words it help to meliorate negative feelings and emotions. This evidence was proved by different research with the use of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). But there was not research to find out the long term effect of linguistic processing on emotional reactions. That is the purpose of the research made by Golnaz Tabibnia and Matthew D. Lieberman and Michelle G. Craske from the University of California, Los Angeles, that was written in the article “The Lasting Effect of Words on Feelings: Words May Facilitate Exposure Effects to Threatening Images”.

To speak about the experiments themselves it is possible to mention some theoretic basis of it. The study is based on the facts that in the course of evolution humans got a special form of reflectivity function of the brain called emotions. They reflect individual significance of external and internal stimuli, situations, events, that is, what makes person nervous and cause certain emotions. In psychology, emotions are defined as the experience of man’s relationship to anything (to the present or future situation, to other people, to himself, etc.). All the actions of a person are associated with his knowledge and relationship to the world. It means that when a person is experiencing what is happening to him he makes certain attitude to what surrounds him; the experience of man’s relationship to the surrounding world are manifested in the form of emotions. Emotions allow a man to reliably assess his condition and the impact of environmental factors, as well as to anticipate these impacts. (Myers 2004; Dalgleish 2004; Dorset Research & Development Support Unit, 2003)

The idea that emotions is a form of reflection, learning, assessment of objective reality, is acknowledged by representatives of different sciences, but especially by psychologists. Psychological and psycholinguistic science research is focused on the functions of emotions in human activity. Despite the clarity of scientific positions, the state of the study of the psychology of emotion remains poor. So, given all the difficult and unresolved questions of the psychological theory of emotion, it is necessary to examine the actual mechanisms of linguistic symbols and expressions of emotion, to investigate the effect of words on emotional responding in the long term.

The scientific novelty of the study is that it is a first comprehensive study of emotions involving linguistic data and psycho-physiological approach. In particular, for the first time is shown how language is reflected in the correlation between emotion and psycho-physiological state of the human body. Theoretical basis of this research is the psychological models that describe the nature of emotion (especially their physiological basis), as well as presentation of verbal expression of human emotions. The theoretical significance of the research lies in the fact that it is necessary to prove the validity of some hypotheses made by scientists from different fields of knowledge regarding the nature of emotions and their expressions. In particular, it is necessary to confirm the connection between emotions and psycho-physiological state of the human body, which has the long-term effect.

The research was preceded by a review of the literature on the topic to support the hypothesis. Were considered earlier studies and research, for example on anxiety disorders (Craske 1999), exposure therapy and extinction (Craske & Mystkowski 2006), international affective picture system (Lang et al. 1999), affect labeling (Lieberman et al. 1997). Special attention was paid to the problem of verbalization of feelings, that was already studied in psychology, and statement that verbalization can help to reduce distress and have long-term consequences (Hemenover, 2003; Pennebaker, 1997). The authors of the article has made a conclusion that all the studies showed a similar mechanism underlying downregulation of negative emotions, which is the prefrontal cortex, that was also proved by in several fMRI studies. (Tabibnia et al., 2008)

The authors of the article wanted to make a new experiment, the aim of which was “to determine whether emotional responding to aversive stimuli would be attenuated more if those stimuli had been previously exposed along with affective words compared to if they had been previously exposed with nonaffective words or without words”. (Tabibnia et al., 2008)

The aim of the study made by Tabibnia et al. was to find out the long term effect of words on emotional responces experimentally. For that purpose it was organized two experiments to see if repeated exposure to aversive pictures would result in better attenuation of autonomic reactivity to those pictures a week later if the exposures were accompanied by linguistic processing. (Tabibnia et al., 2008)

The Experiment 1 was made with 23 healthy participants , who were female students. Individuals were exposed to aversive pictures from the International Affective Picture Set, and each picture was followed by different unrelated negative words (such as illness, bomb, etc.). There were used related and unrelated negative labels to find out the semantic relationship between the image and the affective label, as there was made a hypothesis that all negative labels, regardless of their relation to the image, would be followed by attenuation of autonomic responding. (Tabibnia et al., 2008)

The experiment with pictures had many trials: Each of the 24 pictures was presented 6 times (for a total of 144 trials) and there were 108 different words used. This enabled to get more variants and more correct results at the end. The second stage of the experiment was held on the 8 day with the same participants. They were showed the same pictures plus 6 novel negative IAPS pictures for the novel condition. The results of the experiments were processed and indicated that both related and unrelated negative labels could improve the effect of exposure, and that unrelated negative words led to better long-term attenuation than related negative words.

The second experiment involved 48 participants (students of average age 19.3) with spiders fear; they were selected with special questionnaire. Unlike the first experiment there was no manipulation with labeling, because all the pictures in this study depicted the same object (spiders). Also there were used unrelated negative labels, because these labels showed in Experiment 1 the most long-term attenuation. The exposure session consisted of 72 trials, which structure was the same as in the Experiment 1. The second stage of the experiment was held on the 8 day, and consisted of 120 trials.

The experiment 2 showed that repeated presentations of pictures along with the negative words on Day 1 led to greater reduction in reactivity to the same pictures on Day 8, compared to presentations of the pictures on Day 1. This result was hypothesized. (Tabibnia et al., 2008)

In general the authors of the experiment concluded that in two experiments exposure to threatening pictures together with unrelated negative words, compared to exposure to threatening pictures alone, produced a greater reduction in longterm autonomic reactivity. (Tabibnia et al., 2008)

It is necessary to point the importance of the study, as the work demonstrates that affective language facilitates exposure-related attenuation of autonomic reactivity to aversive and fear-relevant stimuli. That was made for the first time and is important for further study of the effect of language on the outcome of exposure treatment.

The first limitation of the study is that it does not provide any results connected certain form of psychological therapy. the second limitation lies with the fact that although the study shows enhanced exposure effects with affective labels 1 week after treatment, but it is not studied whether this effect continues for longer time. And the last limitation can be called the use of single words during therapy, but not verbal communication.

In conclusion it can be said that the experiment on the lasting effect of words was the first attempt to study the effect of words on feelings and emotions of people in that way. In the result the hypothesis made by the authors was proved, and the results acquired made it possible to conclude that the effect of exposure therapy may be enhanced by use of unrelated negative language during treatment, but this requires new detailed studies and experiment.



Dalgleish, T. (2004). The emotional brain. Nature: Perspectives, 5, 582–89.
Dorset Research & Development Support Unit, 2003. “Emotional Expression.” Retrieved from: http://www.emotionalprocessing.org.uk/Emotion%20concepts/Emotional%20expression.htm 6 April 2011
Goldberg J. G. (1991). Deceits of the mind and their effects on the body. Transaction Publishers
Myers, David G. (2004) “Theories of Emotion.” Psychology. New York: Worth Publishers
Tabibnia G., Lieberman M.D., Craske M.G. (2008). “The lasting effect of words on feelings: words may facilitate exposure effects to threatening images”. Emotion, 8(3: 307-17.