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New research into the power of certain words and phrases emphasise the importance of thinking about the language we use in the workplace

Can our choice of language really affect the way in which people behave. New research suggests that it can. Researchers at Staffordshire University carried out a number of tests to investigate how much easier it is to influence people when referring to “hard” versus “soft science.” In this case one group of participants was told that they would be taking part in an experiment run by neurologists (there’s that “ology” thing again) while the others believed that their trial was being organised by a social science team, in other words, a discipline that could be seen as being “softer”.

Both groups were shown 30 photos of people and were asked to choose a word from a list of negative adjectives including deceitful, stupid, arrogant, and lazy to describe each image. At first, the photos were of what would usually be considered to be unpleasant people, such as members of the Ku Klux Klan. However, after a while, those depicted became more likeable, for example, in a family walking in a park.

The participants were told that they could stop whenever they wanted to. Just as they had suspected, the researchers discovered that participants were more willing to continue the task when they believed that neurologists were asking them to perform it than when the request came from social scientists.

The power of the perception of “hard” or “serious” science versus “soft” social science was revealed in further studies carried out by the team with the use of photographs. Participants who regarded the task as being more serious had greater trust in the researchers and found the study more worthwhile. They were also happier to have taken part in it.

According to the researchers: “People’s willingness to follow the instructions of an authority figure even when they find the task aversive is influenced by their beliefs about the cause they are supposedly advancing.” Science suggests a stronger cause than social science, it seems.

These findings build on earlier research carried out at Yale University, which explored how adding scientific sounding but actually uninformative information about neuroscience affected how people understood the explanation of certain psychological concepts. The participants were divided into three groups, each with different levels of knowledge of neuroscience – little or nothing, students of the subject and experts.

According to the researchers, the first two groups, that is the non-experts and the students, found the explanations with “logically irrelevant neuroscience information more satisfying than explanations without” it and “nonexperts who see neuroscience information automatically judge explanations containing it more favourably.”

Even when the explanations were deliberately drafted to be bad, these two groups didn’t notice the bad bits because the references to neuroscience made them sound, overall, impressive and believable. The researchers note that “logically irrelevant neuroscience information can be seductive.” Non-experts in a subject tend to believe that “explanations involving more technical language are better, perhaps because they look more ‘scientific’.”

Scientific explanations aside, the way in which words can shape our opinions and judgements and even influence our perceptions of reality were the subject of an experiment by a psychologist called Elizabeth Loftus. She asked participants to watch footage of two cars colliding. They were then asked to estimate the speed of one of the cars. However, participants in one group were told that car A had “smashed into” car B, while participants in the other group heard the phrase “collided with”. As you can probably guess, those in the group where “smashed into” was used estimated the speed to be approximately 30 per cent higher than those in the other group.

These three studies vividly demonstrate the ability of language and the choice of words to skew responses. Whatever, the facts, be they psychological concepts or the speed of a car hitting another car, how we react to a basic statement or the way in which we answer a simple question can vary depending on the language used to express it.

This means that when we’re giving feedback, inviting comments or setting out a task for our teams we need to pay careful attention to the language we use so that it doesn’t involve a particular bias or risks misleading the recipient. It’s important, as with any type of communication, to think first and foremost about how it will be received by the audience. Keeping the language, simple, clear and concise and, above all, relevant to that audience is essential.