Emotion words affect eye fixations during reading

Graham G. Scott, Patrick J. O'Donnell, Sara C. Sereno

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

70 Citations (Scopus)


Emotion words are generally characterized as possessing high arousal and extreme valence and have typically been investigated in paradigms in which they are presented and measured as single words. This study examined whether a word's emotional qualities influenced the time spent viewing that word in the context of normal reading. Eye movements were monitored as participants read sentences containing an emotionally positive (e.g., lucky), negative (e.g., angry), or neutral (e.g., plain) word. Target word frequency (high or low) was additionally varied to help determine the temporal locus of emotion effects, with interactive results suggesting an early lexical locus of emotion processing. In general, measures of target fixation time demonstrated significant effects of emotion and frequency as well as an interaction. The interaction arose from differential effects with negative words that were dependent on word frequency. Fixation times on emotion words (positive or negative) were consistently faster than those on neutral words with one exception-high-frequency negative words were read no faster than their neutral counterparts. These effects emerged in the earliest eye movement measures, namely, first and single fixation duration, suggesting that emotionality, as defined by arousal and valence, modulates lexical processing. Possible mechanisms involved in processing emotion words are discussed, including automatic vigilance and desensitization, both of which imply a key role for word frequency. Finally, it is important that early lexical effects of emotion processing can be established within the ecologically valid context of fluent reading.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)783-792
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - May 2012
Externally publishedYes


  • emotion words
  • word frequency
  • reading
  • eye movements
  • lexical access


Dive into the research topics of 'Emotion words affect eye fixations during reading'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this