How Small Words Reveal Big Things About Us

Studies suggest that seemingly inconsequential language choices might reveal something about our identities (and our biases).

If you’re a fan of the New England Patriots, you may refer to your team differently than, say, a Cleveland Browns fan (and no, I’m not talking about your accent). Photo: Jim Davis/The Boston Globe

In 1996, social psychologist John Bargh set out to prove that the words you read can subconsciously influence your behavior. He brought in students, broke them into three different groups, and told them he was interested in studying their language skills. He had the students unscramble thirty five-word sentences. Except, unbeknownst to them, each group unscrambled different words.

One group unscrambled words that demonstrated aggression, such as “pushy” and “disturb.” Another group unscrambled words such as “polite” and “courteous.” And the final group — the control group — unscrambled words that were neither combative nor genteel, such as “exercising” and “prepares.” When they were finished, Dr. Bargh told the students to walk over to the researcher, hand their paper in, and receive another assignment. But here is where the nucleus of the experiment really lived.

As the student approached the researcher, they would find that he or she was engaged in another conversation. The researcher would ignore the student. The question: how long would the student wait before interrupting the researcher?

Dr. Bargh found that more than 80% of the students that unscrambled the “polite” words waited for ten minutes before they interrupted the researcher. Conversely, only about 35% of the students that unscrambled the “rude” words waited that long. The average amount of time a student in the “polite” group waited before interrupting was 9.3 minutes. The average wait time in the “rude” group: 5.4 minutes. (The control group waited, on average, about 8 minutes.) When asked about it later, students couldn’t explain why they waited how long they did.

If the words we read can subconsciously influence how we act — what about the words we speak? What do they tell us?

The study you just read about is one of many on the concept of priming, the idea that exposure to a stimulus (be it a word, image, or scent) can influence our reaction to another stimulus. Consider how Whole Foods primes the consumer experience, by placing flowers at the entrance of most stores (think “fresh”) and the faux chalk-scribbled pricing on chalkboards (think “local”).

I’ve always been interested in how our environment shapes our perception of the world. And because we express so much of ourselves through language, the words we choose can offer a window into that world. For me, this fascination started in sports — specifically, with how we talk about our favorite teams.

Have you ever noticed a peculiar word choice many fans make when talking about their team? Allow me to demonstrate through some phrases every sports fan has heard (or said) before:

I can’t believe we won that game.”

We need to run the ball better in the second half.”

We have the league’s second best passing offense.”

When referring to the team they support, fans tend to use first-person pronouns. If you haven’t noticed this before, you’ll never not notice it again (sorry, both for the double negative and for spotlighting this language quirk). Now, at first blush, you may chalk this phrasing up to loyalty. Fans cheer so feverishly for their favorite team, they must come to feel like they’re part of the squad. When pressed, they know they’re not really a member of the team, but the language they use reflects the connection they feel to the organization they support.

If only it was as simple as that.

In 1976, researcher Robert Cialdini and his colleagues advanced the concept of basking in reflected glory, a self-serving tendency in human beings whereby they associate themselves with other known successful things (such as other people or teams) to the point where the winner’s success feels like their own accomplishment. We form these types of associations so deeply that we don’t even recognize when we’re acting on them. For instance, have you ever instinctively texted “congratulations” to a friend when the team he or she supports won a big game? Think about that for a moment. What are you congratulating them for?

Cialdini’s study included three major findings. First, that students had a greater tendency to wear university apparel after their school’s football team won a game, as opposed to when the team lost. Next, that students used first-person pronouns at a greater frequency when discussing their favorite team’s victory than when describing a loss. And finally — and most broadly — that test subjects were more likely to use first-person pronouns to describe their association with a positive source, versus a negative source — this was particularly true when the subject felt their reputation was at stake.

Research suggests that fans are more likely to wear team apparel — and use “we” when describing their favorite team — after a victory. Photo: Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY Sports

Of course, these aren’t hard and fast rules. As a New York Giants fan, I’ve noticed myself using “we” or “us” on occasion when discussing the team in the past few seasons, and there’s very little team success to associate with in that timeframe. Still — and note, this is anecdotal and far from scientific — I have observed that I am more likely to use first-person pronouns when talking shop with a fellow Giants fan (as if to affirm group membership) than with a non-Giants fan (as if to disassociate myself from the team).

So, studies suggest that even seemingly trivial choices in wording may actually nudge us towards a certain behavior, or serve as a means to boost our sense of self.

But what if they did even more than that? What if language also served to reinforce our biases? And what if those biases quietly — subconsciously, even — influenced critical decisions we make? What would the consequences of that look like?

Earlier this year, a study published by scientists at MIT, the University of California at San Diego, and the University of Potsdam in Germany found that people were reluctant to use the pronoun “she” when hypothetically describing the next president of the United States. This finding, examined in surveys leading up to the 2016 presidential election, was not just observed in those people that did not want Hillary Clinton (the 2016 Democratic Candidate) to win. It was also observed in Democrats, women, and those who planned to vote for her.

In one portion of the study, the participants were asked to read a short passage about the next president. They pressed a button on a screen to reveal each word in the sentence. When they came across the word “she,” there was a “considerable disruption” (about one-third of a second) in reading time. It was a finding that, once again, raised important questions about implicit bias and the oft-heard-but-difficult-to-define concept of electability. It argues that, perhaps, the invisible “filter” in our head that responds to female leadership with novelty causes us to treat female politicians differently — or penalize them differently — than their male counterparts. And, given the present state of the 2020 presidential race, it’s a question we’ll be asking for at least another four years.

But what’s the takeaway here? Is someone who experiences a momentary cognitive lapse when describing a president as female deemed sexist? Is a fan who uses the word “we” when describing their favorite team only doing so to project a more desirable version of themselves? Of course not; these are the types of generalizations that get us into trouble. I believe there is a theme woven across all of this research, and it’s not one of condemnation, but of introspection. Language is powerful. The words we use have the capability to shape our attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. They mold the stories we tell; they frame our memories; they express our ideas and desires. Recognizing this — becoming truly aware of it — is an important step towards a better understanding of who “we” are — and how we came to be this way.

Writing at the intersection of culture and psychology.

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