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Monday, 19 November 2012

The gun-focus effect?

Today I had to sit through a meeting where an e-mail was scrutinized and identified as rude. I found the decision unjustified, in particular in the light of the fact that no communication was aimed directly at the people involved: the e-mail had all the usual (and expected) formalities - greeting, addressing, expression of appreciation, and even the ‘most critical’ points of the letter - the adjectives - referred to “the procedure”, rather than the addressee.

It is very hard to use objective, logical arguments in such a situation, however, mainly because computer-mediated genres, in particular asynchronous types, do not allow for instant revisiting, instant reformulation, instant clarification. There is no vocal tone to reveal intention, no loudness to signal anger or the lack of it, no non-verbal cues to clarify communicative intent. To make things even worse, the perception and interpretation of these written messages (both in terms of their content and intent) is greatly influenced by the social contextual factors related to the reader (see e.g. Ledbetter on the effects of the reader’s gender and the message timing in the perception of supportiveness of e-mails).It looks like emotions and emotional empathy are the key words in this issue - the emotions that are generated by  a written text and then perceived and interpreted by the reader, who is greatly influenced by his or her own preconceptions, computer-mediated communication competence and interpretation of the real or hypothesized non-verbal signals in the message in question. I think it is clear that we are standing on an extremely shaky ground for an argument about “who meant what and with what intention”. The question we can confidently argue about is rather “who reads what into the message”.

As I was listening to the arguments, I couldn’t help but recall the gun-focus effect - an effect that has been known in crime witness testimonies, namely that the witnesses were able to recall the central information (such as the type of the gun) with great precision, but could not remember the peripheral details (such as the face of the attacker). Researchers link this sort of memory narrowing to the emotions associated with the event: in the crime witnesses’ case the negative emotions allowed for the precise recall of one central detail, but not the peripheral information, whereas in the case of positive emotions associated with an event enabled people to remember several details of the event, but none with particular precision.

The reason why this topic came to my mind is because I couldn’t stop wondering how the emotions generated by a written message determine the details we are likely to remember? Could the reader’s negative perception of a message and the resulting negative emotions further narrow their focus to the elements of a message - to a critical word or expression - thus preventing him or her to see the ‘real’ content?

I could not find research to answer my question, but based on today's session, I have to say yes.

Ledbetter, A. M. (2008). Chronemic cues and sex differences in relational E-mail. Social Science Computer Review, 26(4), 466.

Yegiyan, N. S. (2011). Gun focus effect revisited: Emotional tone modulates information processing strategy. Communication Research, 39(6), 724-733.

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