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Negating Is NOT an Easy Thing to Do

October 23, 2012

by Kathryn Lynn Boucher, Indiana University

Image courtesy of digitalart /

Imagine that you are on a blind date that is going quite well. Through your engaging and easy-flowing conversation, you find out that the two of you have much in common: shared hobbies, similar life goals, and compatible values. You find this person to be attractive, interesting, and warm-natured. When asked about a possible second date, you quickly answer with an emphatic “I would love to.” You later rave about your date to your roommate, who you had not told about the date in advance, and you are surprised at your roommate’s look of concern. Your roommate then discloses that your date has a reputation for being unfaithful to significant others and has had several run-ins with the law. Given that you trust your roommate to be truthful, how do you think about your date now? Would your impression change? Would you decide to cancel your second and all future dates?

When we are told that information we once believed to be true is in fact false, we have to negate this previous information in order to come to the correct conclusion. For example, when you are thinking about your date, you have to mentally reverse thoughts of honesty that you formerly had. Instead of describing your date as honest, you generate a new depiction of your date as dishonest. This new information is stored in memory and can be later recalled and used to inform future behavior toward your date.

Although people tend to be successful at negation, this process can be difficult and require a great amount of cognitive effort (e.g., Gilbert, 1991). When people do not have ample cognitive resources or are not willing to expend cognitive effort, negations may not be extensively processed, and the initial information and the negation may be stored separately in memory. This separate storage of information can lead people to later recall only the initial information, not that it was negated (e.g., Mayo, Schul, & Burnstein, 2004). For example, the positive thoughts you had about your date and the information from your roommate that nullified these thoughts could be stored separately in memory. When thinking about this date years later, you may only remember the positive aspects of your date, not that this information was later falsified.

Over the past few decades, psychologists have examined closely the process of negation in order to understand how information can persist in its un-negated form. This work has compared the evaluations people hold on two different types of measures: explicit and implicit attitude measures. While explicit attitude measures gauge preferences that people can consciously report on tasks like surveys, implicit attitude measures capture the accessibility of concepts related to preferences for the individual through reaction time tasks. For instance, an explicit attitude measure may ask participants to rate the extent to which they like the target of impression formation, and an implicit attitude measure may record how long it takes to categorize positive and negative words. Past research using these two types of measures show that successful negation is usually found on explicit attitude measures as people are able to report their revised evaluations on a survey. However, implicit attitude measures often capture mental associations in line with the original information that may be just as accessible or more accessible than the negation (e.g., DeCoster, Banner, Smith, & Semin, 2006; Deutsch, Kordts-Freudinger, Gawronski, & Strack, 2009). When this occurs, it is possible that the original information, despite being negated, can continue to influence people’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Thus, implicit attitude measures provide a means through which the success of negating false information can be examined.

Given that it is usually beneficial for us to negate information once we know it is false, it is important to explore ways to process negated information in order for successful negation to be captured on both explicit and implicit attitude measures. In our work, recently published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (Boucher & Rydell, 2012), we tested one possible method to encourage successful negation: increasing the visual salience of negations. By increasing the font size of negations, we predicted that participants would be more efficient at revising their initial evaluations. In a series of studies that echo the above scenario, we tested this hypothesis by presenting participants with information about a novel individual named Bob. This information was either all positive or negative. For some participants, each piece of information was followed by a negation (i.e., Bob would NOT do this.) This negation was either presented in a really large font size or in a relatively smaller font size. After participants received all of the information about Bob, their evaluations of him were measured on explicit and implicit attitude measures.

We found that when negations were less visually salient, explicit but not implicit attitude measures reflected the intended valence of the negations. When negations were more visually salient, both explicit and implicit attitude measures reflected the intended valence of the negations. These findings suggest that attracting people’s attention to the negating information even in subtle ways like font size can lead people to more efficiently process the presented information and store it in its correct form in memory. This work has implications for any domain in which false information is presented and can influence evaluations. For instance, political advertisements containing inaccurate information about a candidate or court testimony that is found to be based on faulty evidence may be more likely to be successfully negated and stored in memory in their correct form when the information that includes the negation is presented in a manner that emphasizes the negation. Further, considering that increased visual salience encourages the storage of the negation with the original information in memory, it is less likely that the original information will be later recalled without also recalling that it was negated. This means that the current and enduring influence of false political ads, inadmissible evidence, and inaccurate first impressions, as in the date scenario, could be lessened by increasing the attention paid to negations.

Author information

Kathryn L. Boucher is a Ph.D. candidate at Indiana University, working primarily with Dr. Robert J. Rydell. Her work focuses on the processes that underlie the formation and change of evaluations, impressions, and other knowledge structures. This research informs a second focus of her work: examining how stereotypes negatively impact individuals, how people respond to them, and how stereotypes can be changed.


Boucher, K. L., & Rydell, R. J. (2012). Impact of negation salience and cognitive resources on negation during attitude formation. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38, 1329-1342. doi:10.1177/0146167212450464

DeCoster, J., Banner, M. J., Smith, E. R., & Semin, G. R. (2006). On the inexplicability of the implicit: Differences in the information provided by implicit and explicit tests. Social Cognition, 24, 5-21.

Deutsch, R., Kordts-Freudinger, R., Gawronski, B., & Strack, F. (2009). Fast and fragile: A new look at the automaticity of negation processing. Experimental Psychology, 56, 434-446.

Gilbert, D. T. (1991). How mental systems believe. American Psychologist, 46, 107-119.

Mayo, R., Schul, Y., & Burnstein, E. (2004). “I am not guilty” vs. “I am innocent”: Successful negation may depend on the schema used for its encoding. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 40, 433-449.

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