For brands and MPs, language is key to shaping beliefs and behaviour

Language has the power to shape our beliefs and make us behave in a certain way. If, as research suggests, it is what we hear that counts, not what we say, it means we all have a responsibility to understand and use the psychological tools within language to communicate clearly and with transparency.

With the general election fast approaching, we need to decide who to vote for and which politician we can trust. In a battle that is increasingly fought on personality, not policy, it’s the rhetoric, emotion and subconscious signals of power embedded in persuasive political language that can reveal covert agendas and likely candidates for the top jobs.

Beyond staged political photos and the odd unfortunate gaff, it’s the words and syntax our politicians use that can influence our perception of their ability to lead. It’s also these key elements that can mean the difference between a successful, well-targeted marketing campaign and one that misses the mark.

So what are these signals? The first is the use of abstract language. We’ve all heard the phrase ‘fake it till you make it’. Well, psychological research[1] has discovered that, much like confidence, when people exhibit certain behavioural signals of power they are often treated in a way that allows them to actually achieve it. In fact, a study published in the Journal of personality and social psychology only last year[2] found that people who used more abstract (versus more concrete) language across a set of seven experiments were consistently perceived by others as more powerful. Whether because it reflected a general style of abstract thinking or a willingness to judge, the abstract speaking style employed by this group had a real and tangible effect on those appraising them.

Another signal of power is the use of framing techniques. People in positions of authority not only use abstract language, they also tend to talk about the big picture rather than the details[3]. For example, a person discussing a huge tornado might either state that 130 people died and 200 were injured (a concrete statement conveying specific details), or that the tornado was a national tragedy (an abstract statement conveying higher-level meaning). The point is that when we use abstract language, we’re communicating that we’re removed from the action and therefore able to distil the essence of the situation, instead of being drawn into more concrete actions that would be most salient if we were on the ground.

It’s crucial insights like these that have politicians knocking at the doors of psychologists and linguists, and in a candid interview with PBS, Dr. Frank Luntz (linguistics advisor to Republican Party) revealed that it’s how people feel, rather than what they think, that is the key to changing people’s minds. This brings us to the third signal. When we encounter any kind of message, we engage in one of two types of processing: central processing, which is active and critical, or peripheral processing, which evaluates the message based on other cues. If something is likely to affect you immediately, chances are you’ll listen to that message more carefully. If it’s not, you’re much less likely to evaluate the content critically and instead you’ll simply attend to other elements of the message to extract its meaning.

In political debates, complex issues are often simplified to convey peripheral cues for this reason – if a politician can replace a neutral phrase such as “Estate tax” with something much more emotional like “Death tax”, they’re much more likely to trigger a peripheral process and spark an explosive emotional response as opposed to a critical one, which, if designed well, can lead voters to take a desired action much more quickly. The same approach can be used in reverse to neutralise even the most extreme threats, such as global warming. Rather than use a phrase that hints at the disastrous humanitarian crisis that awaits us if we do nothing, many politicians will instead use the words “Climate change” to lessen the fear (and action) associated with this very real and imminent problem.

The bottom line is this: the language we use holds power. Words are not merely a means of communication, they can shape our beliefs, influence our emotions and behaviours, and ultimately lead us to certain courses of action. If, as research suggests, it’s not what we say that counts, but rather what we hear, then we all have a responsibility to understand and use the psychological tools within our language to communicate clearly and with transparency. Surely the goal of any effective marketing is to empower an audience with the information they need to make a decision they’ll be satisfied with, and if the product is good enough, you won’t need misleading emotions and abstraction to sell it.

[1] Smith, P. K., & Galinsky, A. D. (2010). The nonconscious nature of power: Cues and consequences. Social and Personality Psychology Compass4(10), 918-938.

[2] Wakslak, C. J., Smith, P. K., & Han, A. (2014). Using abstract language signals power. Journal of personality and social psychology107(1), 41.

[3] Wakslak, C. J., Smith, P. K., & Han, A. (2014). Using abstract language signals power. Journal of personality and social psychology107(1), 41.

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