Tools for Changing the World

Social psychology for social good

Be a noun and watch your verbing

August 8th, 2011

words words wordsWhen I’m speaking, I’m usually focussed on more or less making sense (and sometimes on suppressing my urge to use the more, er, colourful words I know). I don’t give that much thought to my exact phrasing or word choices.

Apparently, I should.

Two recent studies have found that word choice matters more than you think: people behave differently when we alter our words even slightly.

I’ve written before (more than once, actually) about the power of labels in shaping our behaviours. Now a team led by Christopher Bryan has discovered that turning an action into a label – basically turning a verb into a noun – can actually change the way people respond.

I'm so adjective...Two previous studies had shown that, for example, describing Joe as a “chocolate-eater” made people believe that chocolate was a bigger part of Joe’s life than if they were told, “Joe eats chocolate a lot”. Bryan’s team aimed to discover whether this difference applied to voting activity.

Just before an American presidential election, they asked people who weren’t registered to vote either “How important is it to you to be a voter in the upcoming election?” or “How important is it to you to vote in the upcoming election?” Then they asked how interested that person was in registering to vote. Significantly more people claimed to be interested if they had answered the “voter” question rather than the “to vote” question.

But did this translate into real behavioural change? It did. The researchers asked either of the same two questions to a group of registered voters the day before or the morning of the election. Of those asked about being a voter, 96% showed up at the polls – compared to 82% of those asked about voting. In an election elsewhere, the numbers were 90% versus 79%. Just making people think of themselves as “voters” made them more likely to act in accordance with that label. Who we are means more than what we do.

Nouns aren’t the only parts of speech with power. New research by Caitlin Fausey and Teenie Matlock shows that simply changing the form of a verb has an impact.

verb badFausey and Matlock asked their study participants to judge whether an imaginary politician would be re-elected under various circumstances. They described his previous positive and negative actions, but varied the form of the verbs being used. For example, some people were told “Last year, Mark Johnson had an affair” while others were told “Last year, Mark Johnson was having an affair”.

It’s a subtle change, but it made a difference. Their results showed that when this politician “was doing” a negative action, people were more confident that he wouldn’t be re-elected than when he “did” that action.

In fact, when the action was taking bribes, the participants thought that the politician who “was taking hush money” accepted more money than the one who “took hush money”. It seems that the “was doing” form of a verb amplified its effect, perhaps because the audience assumed that the action might continue.

I won’t tell you to keep these results in mind whenever you’re talking, because who has that much attention to spare? (Hint: not me.) But when you’re writing to persuade or preparing a public speech, careful word choices might help your cause. There’s a difference between a “non-smoker” and a “person who quit smoking” and a difference between someone who “was lying to her constituents” and one who “lied to her constituents”.

As always, I’d appreciate input and examples from any of my blog readers.  (See what I did there?)

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