You know that incredibly sad ASPCA commercial about animal abuse? The one that features Sarah McLachlan’s song, “Angel”? If you don’t know what I’m talking about, I envy you greatly. And if you do know what I’m talking about, I share in your pity, as this is the most heartbreaking commercial to ever exist.

For what feels like a lifetime, snippets of abandoned, abused, and sick animals flash across the screen, while McLachlan’s haunting voice sings, “in the arms of an angel, fly away from here.” Any time it comes on my TV, I scramble to change the channel, but even one quick glance causes me to tear up and, quite frankly, ruins my day.

I don’t know anybody that likes this commercial. In fact, everyone I’ve discussed it with is on the same page: it’s horrible, and it makes them feel horrible. How is this commercial, or even a glimpse of this commercial, able to evoke such emotion? And do the consequences stop there, or can emotionally-charged images like those featured in the ASPCA commercial influence our behavior as well?

New research published in Frontiers in Psychology explored this very question and says that brief or subtle emotionally-charged images can indeed influence both feelings and behavior. More specifically, this study “Influence of Suboptimally and Optimally Presented Affective Pictures and Words on Consumption-Related Behavior” found that emotional images can have a significant impact on one’s behavior, but emotional words do not possess the same power.

Lead author of this study, Peter Winkielman of the University of California, San Diego, started studying these effects long ago. He conducted previous research and reported that showing thirsty people brief images of happy faces led them to drink more liquid immediately after, while images of scowling faces caused them to drink less. The study subjects were reportedly unaware of any emotional changes. In the current study, Winkielman and his colleagues expand their experiment to include other images as well as words.

“We wanted to compare two major kinds of emotional stimuli that people encounter in their life: words and pictures, including those of emotional faces and evocative images of objects,” Winkielman explained. “We also tested if it matters whether these stimuli are presented very briefly or for a longer period of time.”

The research team conducted a series of experiments, which asked study participants to categorize objects, faces, or words, whilst emotionally-charged images (of faces, pictures, or words, some positive and some negative) flashed across the computer screen. Then, they gave the subjects a soft drink and told them that they were allowed to drink as much or as little as they pleased.

As observed in previous studies, participants drank more of the soft drink after being exposed to happy faces versus angry faces. They also drank more after seeing positive objects as opposed to negative objects. However, positive words did not prove to increase consumption. “We found that emotive images of objects altered the amount that participants drank, with ‘positive objects increasing consumption and ‘negative’ objects decreasing it. But people were not swayed by emotional words, which were somehow powerless—even though the words were rated to be as emotive as the pictures,” Winkielman said of the results.

This study’s findings propose that emotionally-charged images are more powerful than words—but it doesn’t exactly explain why. This is the next element to explore, which the researchers plan to do. In the meantime, they hypothesize that we understand and connect with pictures in a way we don’t or can’t with words, due to ambiguity and need for a greater analysis.

Frontiers in Psychology (2018, January 29). Emotional Images Sway People More than Emotional Words. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved January 29, 2018 from

Winkielman, P. & Gogolushko, Y. (2018, January 29). Influence of Suboptimally and Optimally Presented Affective Pictures and Words on Consumption-Related Behavior. Frontiers in Psychology. Retrieved from