Micro-valences: perceiving affective valence in everyday objects

Sophie Lebrecht, Moshe Bar, Lisa Feldman Barrett, and Michael J. Tarr

New research from Carnegie Mellon University's Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition (CNBC) shows that the brain's visual perception system automatically and unconsciously guides decision-making through valence perception. Valence — defined as “the positive or negative information automatically perceived in the majority of visual information” — is a process that allows our brains to quickly make choices between similar objects. The researchers concluded that “everyday objects carry subtle affective valences – ‘micro-valences’ – which are intrinsic to their perceptual representation.”

The findings of this research (published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology), offer important insights into consumer behavior. Instead of using traditional consumer marketing focus groups, companies can utilize brain research to understand how visual perception unconsciously affects preferences.

The CMU research team hopes to transfer the research's scientific application to the online video market, with the support of The National Science Foundation (NSF) Innovation Corps (I-Corps), NSF established I-Corps to “assess the readiness of transitioning new scientific opportunities into valuable products through a public-private partnership.” The CMU team is founding the startup company Neon, one of the first companies to use cognitive neuroscience to increase audience engagement for online video publishers.  For example, the Neon team is developing a Web-based software service that automatically selects the most visually appealing frame from a stream of video to be used as the thumbnail. Initial pilot test results show that a thumbnail chosen by Neon significantly increased online clicks compared to a randomly selected thumbnail or even one hand-selected by a Web designer.

Michael Tarr, co-director of the CNBC and TDLC member, explains that basic research in the cognitive and brain sciences has many applications: "In Neon's case, a better understanding of the role of unconscious visual processing in choice behavior may have implications in both the educational and commercial domains.”

Sophie Lebrecht, lead author of the study and the entrepreneurial lead for the I-Corps grant, continues: "Everything you see, you automatically dislike or like, prefer or don't prefer, in part, because of valence perception. Valence links what we see in the world to how we make decisions … Talking with companies such as YouTube and Hulu, we realized that they are looking for ways to keep users on their sites longer by clicking to watch more videos. Thumbnails are a huge problem for any online video publisher, and our research fits perfectly with this problem. Our approach streamlines the process and chooses the screenshot that is the most visually appealing based on science, which will in the end result in more user clicks."

Tarr and Lebrecht
Michael Tarr, co-Director of CNBC, Neon co-founder and senior technical adviser.
Sophie Lebrecht, Neon co-founder