Words as Master Manipulators

It is no secret that language is powerful. Writing and speaking with intention and attention to detail is a critical skill to develop in the communications industry. In my linguistics course, we conducted a study to examine exactly how much power our vocabularies carry.

To do so, we asked participants to watch a short video of a fender bender accident before we asked them to make estimations about the speed at which the cars collided, the depth of the pool and the weight of the boxer.

Each participant was asked to estimate these things with 1 of 5 different verbs to frame the question. For example, participants were asked: “What speed were the cars going when they [ ]?” The word that fills in the [ ] is different for different participants; one fifth of the participants see the word “smashed into”, one fifth see “collided into”, one fifth see “bumped into”, one fifth see “hit” and one fifth see “contacted”. Thus, the ONLY thing that varies for different participants is the particular verb used in the question they are asked.

Somewhat unsurprisingly, participants who saw “collided” consistently estimated almost 5 more MPH than those who saw “contacted.” This brief example demonstrates the fact that changing the question by even one word can make a real difference in the responses it will elicit from the listener or reader.

This was a low-stakes example. But how does this manifest itself in the real world?

The most obvious answer is the role of question framing in our legal court system. Prosecutors are trained in the art of manipulating eyewitnesses to respond in a way that suits their agenda. This phenomenon I also present in all areas of effectively persuasive communications content production.

Our experiment showcases the fact that careful word choice has the power to control responses subconsciously.

Simple awareness of this power already puts the writer or speaker at an advantage. Public relations professionals wield this power to influence their target audiences.

Language is powerful and we are responsible for using it carefully to communicate exactly what we mean, without the luxury of laziness.


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