Word of mouth: How our tongue shapes our preferences, and why you should eat popcorn in the cinema

Are you sick of banner ads, commercials, and brand names depicted everywhere? You might think this way of advertising is pointless since it will not influence you anyway. However, psychological research has identified how branding hacks into your mind and how you can prevent this.

Think of the last time you interacted with a person wearing brand-name clothes. For instance talking with those “cool” people with the RayBan pilot-glasses, where you do not see their eyes but only this little logo. Do you think perceiving this little logo influences you? Say, prompts you to chose a RayBan product yourself? Or do you think you are immune to this kind of influence? In this article, you will learn that such brand name placement very well has an influence on you, even if you just see it out of the corner of your eyes. And most importantly, derived from recent psychological research that identified how branding influences our minds, you will learn how to really get immune against it.

According to embodiment theory (e.g., Barsalou, 1999; Semin & Smith, 2008), the objects that we encounter in everyday life trigger the responses that we usually do with them, even if no response is necessary (e.g., Topolinski, 2010, 2011). For instance, when we see a glass of water, our brain automatically simulates the bodily response of grasping that glass (Tucker & Ellis, 1998), even if we simply watch it. The same is true when we even only see the name of an object or behavior (Glenberg & Kaschak, 2002). For words, the common response is reading, and our brain automacially reads a word even if we do not want to. This effect is called the Stroop-effect (Stroop, 1935) and is well established in modern psychology: even if our task is not to read a word but -for instance- to name the color in which the word is printed, we cannot help reading the word. So during talking to a RayBan wearer, you also automatically read the logo.

This is true for any name or word, even if we do not attend to it, like banner ads on the internet, the name AISHWARYA RAI in a movie credit, or the place-name signs that fly by when you are driving the car. Of course, this reading is a covert response, which means that we do not actually read the word out aloud, but rather that the musculuar system in our mouth subtly simulates the pronunciation of a word, without visible actual mouth movements. We call this pronunciation simulations, or subvocal articulation, like an inner speech.

The fluency of the tongue tango

The funny twist now is what happens when we encounter the names of brands or persons repeatedly. The first time, novel names are hard to pronounce, even with the inner speech. But like during learning a new dance –say a tango– it gets easier with repetition. Each time you encounter a name your tongue and lips will secretly train to articulate that name, and this tongue tango gets more fluent over time. This efficiency of mental processing is called fluency in psychological research (e.g., Topolinski & Reber, 2010; Topolinski & Strack, 2009a), and it has been shown for many tasks that fluency in perception, thinking, or motor exercises feels good (e.g., Topolinski, Likowski, Weyers, & Strack, 2009; for a review, see Reber, Schwarz, & Winkielman, 2004). You can easily assess this within yourself: Think of the first time you had to handle a smart phone, an espresso machine, or a computer keyboard. It felt complicated and inconvient. But over time it became easier and more pleasant – and now most of us cannot keep the hands off the smartphone anymore.

This also applies to the silent reading of words. In a classical experiment, Bob Zajonc (1968) has shown the following, which is called the mere exposure effect. Participants received nonsense words that had no meaning themselves (e.g., ENANWAL) and were asked to report how much they like these words. Nonsense words were used to avoid the influence of personal preferences for certain meaningful words. Crucially, while half of these words were presented only one time, the other half was presented several times. It was found that participants preferred repeated over novel words (for reviews, see Bornstein, 1989; Moreland & Topolinski, 2010). Apparently, repetition increased the easiness with which these initially novel words could be read, and thereby triggered a pleasant feeling (cf., Song & Schwarz, 2009). Mind again that this was silent reading. For reading out aloud, these effects might have been even stronger, because for loud reading the initial difficulty of pronunciation might be felt even stronger. And that this was due to the fluency of the tongue tango was shown recently.

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