Word Psychology: The Subconscious Impact Of Words On Behaviour
Word psychology research outlines how everyday words impact our lives in drastic and surprising ways. I’ve spent the last week exploring interesting psychology experiments, and coming up with practical strategies to combat the effects words have on our sneaky subconscious.
Ready? Let’s just dive right on in.
You are what you read
The words that we read acutely influence the ways we think and behave. The most instrumental experiment in highlighting this phenomenon was conducted by Bargh, Chen & Burrow in their 1996 study published by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Here’s what they found.
(i) Patience Is A Virtue
The Yale researchers wanted to know if people behave differently when exposed to positive or negative words. To test this hypothesis, they asked three separate groups to complete a simple word task. Subjects reorganised mixed up words to form coherent sentences e.g. “replied he respect with” becomes “he replied with respect”.
- The first group’s words were associated with politeness e.g. “respect” and “graciously”.
- Group two were given words associated with rudeness e.g. “interrupt” and “bold”.
- The third group acted as a control and were given neutral words such as “prepares”.
Once subjects had finished the word task, they were directed to another room. Upon arrival however, the researcher in the second room was deep in conversation, brazenly ignoring the subject. Researchers found that words in the first task influenced the subjects behaviour in the second room:
- Subjects from Group 1 (primed with ‘politeness’ words) waited an average of 9.4 minutes before interrupting the researcher.
- The second group (primed with ‘rudeness’ words) were considerably less patient, standing around for an average of only 5.4 minutes.
- Finally, in the control group, the average time before interruption was 8.7 minutes.
The ‘rudeness’ group interrupted the researcher 3.3 minutes quicker than the average person (control group), and a whopping 4 minutes quicker than the ‘politeness’ group. Though they may have felt guilty afterwards for being quick-tempered, the ‘rudeness’ group did spend far less time awkwardly glaring at a stranger in a lab coat for attention. Worth it!
(ii) As Old As You Feel
In the second part of this experiment, researchers gave two new groups of subjects the same word scramble task. This time, the sentences consisted of either words that related to aging (e.g. “old”, “lonely”, “wrinkle”), or neutral words (control group). Upon completion of the word task, researchers told subjects that the experiment was over and that they were free to leave.
In reality, covert researchers were hiding in the shadows with stopwatches. They secretly tracked the length of time it took subjects to walk from the lab door to the elevator at the end of the corridor. Mindbogglingly, when compared to their control group peers, the ‘aging’ word group walked slower to the elevator door.
This honestly made me giggle so much! Imagining the subjects zombie-crawling toward the elevator, inching forward one teeny shuffling step at a time. In actuality the difference was only a couple of seconds – a finding which may have shattered my ‘Dawn of the Dead’ illusion, but was still statistically significant.
Words influence our behaviour due to a psychological phenomenon known as priming. According to PsychologyToday, “priming is a phenomenon in which exposure to one stimulus influences how a person responds to a subsequent, related stimulus. These stimuli are often conceptually related words or images.”
Through priming, words can permeate our unconscious mind; influencing our thoughts, feelings and behaviour. For example, in the experiments that we’ve already seen, we know that certain words can make you more patient and polite. With the power of word psychology, we can even be tricked into making healthier choices.
In a study published by John Wryobeck and Yiwei Chen in Clinical Psychologist, one half of all subjects were given a language task using words such as “fit”, “lean”, “active”, and “athletic”. When directed to a second room up one floor, these subjects were more likely to use the stairs instead of the elevator. In fact, 92% of subjects in this group took the stairs, compared to 58% of the control group.
This effect can be reproduced with any type of positive words. So make sure to add “super fittie stair queen millionaire genius” to your daily mantra. 😉
The words we tell ourselves are often more damaging than good. Sadly, negative words carry more weight than their positive counterparts – a psychological phenomenon is known as the negativity bias. This means that “even when of equal intensity, things of a more negative nature have a greater effect on one’s psychological state and processes than neutral or positive things.”
I am fascinated by the negativity bias. It was even the basis for my undergraduate thesis! In my research, I studied the impact of positive and negative YouTube comments on the overall rating of a video (good, bad, or neutral). The findings showed the power of the negativity bias in all its glory.
- When the video had no comments (control) or only positive comments, it was rated as ‘good’ or ‘neutral’ by 87% of subjects.
- Introduce just one negative comment, and things quickly began to fall apart. Subjects consistently reported the video as being ‘bad’ more often than ‘good’ or ‘neutral’ (i.e. more than 50% of total subject reports). This remained true even when the negative comment was nestled in between up to four other positive comments.
- With each addition of a positive comment, the subjects reported the video as ‘good’ or ‘neutral’ with an average increase of 4%. Still, the addition of each negative comment would increase the reporting of the video by subjects as ‘bad’ by 12% on average. That’s three times as influential. Hmm. 🤔
*Disclaimer: I’m not a practicing psychologist and my research was not officially published. Feel free to replicate this experiment! 🔬
Words Can Physically Change Your Brain
No, the neuroscientists are not all on crack. In the groundbreaking book ‘Words Can Change Your Brain’, neuroscientist Andrew Newberg and communications expert Mark Waldman outline how “a single word has the power to influence the expression of genes that regulate physical and emotional stress.”
Just one simple flash of the word “no” is enough to immediately activate the fear response in our brains. This causes a deluge of cortisol and other stress-inducing hormones to be released. Repetitive exposure to negative words continually excites the amygdala, flooding our body with hormones that lead to feelings of anxiety and depression.
Positive words, on the other hand, can alter the expression of genes and propel the motivational centers of the brain into action. Sadly, our brain does not react to the these words with a tsunami of endorphins like it would a negative word. Instead, they are built up over time. Through conscious effort, positive words can influence functioning of our frontal lobes:
“By holding a positive and optimistic [word] in your mind, you stimulate frontal lobe activity. This area includes specific language centers that connect directly to the motor cortex responsible for moving you into action. And as our research has shown, the longer you concentrate on positive words, the more you begin to affect other areas of the brain.”
‘Words Can Change Your Brain’ by Andrew Newberg and Mark Waldman
How To Protect Your Brain From Word Damage
Solution 1: Magical Ratio
As a word psychology expert by now, it should come as no surprise to you that positive words can change your behaviour and mental state for the better. Yet as our brains react less to positive words than negative words, you need to expose yourself to positive words even more.
In her bestselling book on positive psychology research, Professor Barbara Fredrickson outlines how we can overcome our negativity bias by exposing ourselves to positive words and thoughts at a ratio of 3:1 (positive versus negative words). She calls this process the “upward spiral” – a type of emotional vortex I can personally get behind.
Similarly you need to do what you can to avoid negative words. You can’t achieve that sweet 3:1 ratio if you’re allowing your coworker to chew the ear off you all day about how people who read Harry Potter are like sooo lame. Drop that negativity, turn off the news, tell your boo that you love them, and listen to an inspiring podcast.
Solution 2: Conscious Repetition
The more our brains are exposed to a specific stimulus, the faster it will respond to that stimulus in the future. This is known as repetition priming, and it helps our brains to think faster by searching for patterns. These mental shortcuts make it difficult to be aware of patterns of negative thinking, as it all occurs without conscious thought.
In fact, the more you are exposed to information (even if it is glaringly false), the more you will believe it. This psychological phenomenon is known as the Illusory Truth Effect and it explains why political propaganda works so well.
So make sure to consciously think about the internal propaganda you tell yourself. Are you being your own greatest ally, or a highly critical dissenter? The next time you catch yourself thinking that you are stupid, ugly, or worthless – think twice. In our brains, repeated thoughts become our beliefs, whether we like them or not.
Solution 3: Minimal Effort Journal
In a landmark study, subjects were asked for one week to write down three good things that happened each day and a brief explanation of the cause. Subjects enjoyed the experiment so much that many kept going, and it’s easy to see why.
After only one week perceived happiness increased by 2% and depressive symptoms declined by 28%. Improvements continued week upon week, ending up 9% happier after six months. Depressive symptoms remained consistently lower at around the same level. Not bad for 5 minutes out of your day!
Solution 4: O-pen Sesame
Not strictly word psychology but so effective that I had to include it! When all else fails, use the power of the pen. No, I don’t want you to sell one to me, but I do want you to put it in your mouth.
Simple actions can influence our behaviour and how we feel. The famed psychologist and economist Daniel Kahnemann writes in his book ‘Thinking fast and slow’ that “being amused tends to make you smile and smiling tends to make you feel amused.” Hence, placing a pen horizontally in your mouth mimics a smile expression, and will make you feel happier!
The Final Word
It’s surprising just how much words permeate our subconscious and influence our behaviour. Yet how many times do we throw our words away without care? We ‘jokingly’ talk trash about ourselves with others, solidifying negative subconscious beliefs that are simply not true. So be careful and precise about the words you let in. They just might change your life.
If you liked this article on word psychology, then you may also enjoy my previous post on self-help addiction and the toxic forces that drive modern industry.
**Have an opinion, idea, or personal experience regarding word psychology? I’d love to hear from you! Shoot me a message in the comment section below.