Shortly after Carl Jung took up residence at Burghölzli Mental Hospital in Zurich in 1900, he became interested in word association tests, which were discovered by the German psychologist Wilhelm Wundt. In these experiments the subject was asked to respond with the first word that came to their mind to a list of 100 words; words such as bread, table, war, ink, love, dog, head, faithful, water, stroke, and lamp. When the subjects had completed the list they were also asked to recall what responses they had given. Their responses were noted, including the time to respond, as well as emotional and physiological responses (the latter measured with a psychogalvonometer, which measured the skin’s electrical conductivity). If the response time was particularly long, or the associated word was uncommon, nonsense, not remembered on recall, or accompanied by particular emotions, Jung considered this a ‘complex indicator’ and a sign of an unconscious psychological conflict.
Theodor Ziehen, the German psychiatrist, had discovered the feeling-toned complex in 1898—a combination of images and ideas clustered around an emotional centre.
For Jung, the bundles of feeling-toned ideas which are part of our psychological makeup and not under the control of our consciousness were what he termed complexes.
Certain words resonate within us, acting as anchor points to certain encoded visual memories. A subset of words universally affect neurological functioning “Words like anger, fear, selfish, danger, kill, dead, slap, and punish are neurologically unpleasant, whereas emotionally positive words like discovery, guarantee, love, save, easy, health, safety, compassion, and trust activate the striatum and other parts of the brain that are related to pleasure, happiness, peace, and the sense of impending reward”
A similar experiment was conducted by psychologists in the 1940s. A subject is repeatedly flashed a word very briefly, and the exposure duration is gradually increased until she able to identify the word correctly. Some of the words used are neutral, while others are vulgar or or disturbing in some way. The charged words do not become consciously visible to the subjects until they are exposed to considerably longer duration than the neutral words. If recognition and consciousness are the same thing, this result is simply incomprehensible. How could one selectively raise the perceptual threshold for things that have not yet been recognised? Unconscious perception provides the only explanation: the taboo word is recognised unconsciously, and the upper, conscious threshold is immediately raised in order to try to protect consciousness from the threat or emotional discomfort that the word has generated. Jerome Bruner, one of the investigators of research on unconscious perception back in the late 1940s, used to use the analogy of the ‘Judas eye’, the peephole used by the doorkeeper at a ‘speakeasy’ to distinguish between bona fide members, for whom the door opens, and undesirables, such as the police, who are shut out. Without the Judas eye, one could only tell friend from foe by opening the door — and then it was too late. They called this phenomenon perceptual defence.
What we perceive and the senses evoked depends on our values. In 1948, Neil Postman used a tachistoscope to flash words very quickly on a screen. These words were associated with various values. For example, subjects were shown political words such as govern, citizen, and politics; and aesthetic words such as poetry, artist, and beauty. In all the words represented six different values measured by the Allport-Vernon Scale of Values (1931). The Scale of Values (SOV) is a personality assessment tool that was created by Vernon Allport in 1931. By 1970 it was the fifth most-cited personality test in clinical trials, after the Rorschach and TAT1. The SOV identifies six value orientations: theoretical, economic, aesthetic, social, political, religious.
Despite the fact that the chosen words were equally familiar, the speed with which subjects recognised the words varied as a consequence of the subjects’ values, as measured by the same Allport-Vernon Scale given earlier to subjects. The higher a subject’s score on a particular value, the more quickly he or she recognised the word. Politically oriented subjects, for example, recognised political words sooner than artistically oriented.
According to Edward de Bono, more than three-quarters of our public thinking is no more than an attempt to drag value-laden words as soon as we possibly can. And then to rest the argument on those words.
The average newspaper editorial or political speech is no more than a thin net of rational argument supporting a heavy burden of value-laden words. There are the goodie words such as: honour, fair play, freedom, consistency, human rights, sincere, direct, perceptive, etc. Then there are the baddie words which are much more numerous: obstinate, stubborn, sly, cunning, clever, deceitful, well-meaning, misguided, egotist, manipulative, self-seeking, publicity seeking, popularizer, superficial, capitalist, socialist, small-minded, shifty, etc. These are quite apart from the directly negative words like foolish or incompetent which are honest judgements. The danger is much more with the sneer words which slip by and yet carry their value with them. A good example is the phrase ‘well-intentioned’ which sounds positive but is used in a negative way.
R. E. Kopelman, J. L. Rovenpor, M. Guan, The Study of Values: Construction of the fourth edition. Article in Journal of Vocational Behavior, April 2003. ↩