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The Fascinating Effects of Words

How we think is affected by the words we know. This much can be seen without much the need to wait for scientific studies. For example, a simple experiment in imagination is all it takes to understand the role of vocabulary in making much of our thinking possible. Write down ten or twenty words and try to carry on the usual mental conversations that make up most of our mental lives, but using only the words on that list, and you'll quickly recognize how important it is to have a vocabulary that is large enough to sustain any serious abstract thought, or any thinking about ideas.

However, the various effects of words on your process of thought are not just a matter of the quantity of words you know. Yes, you can think new things when you have new words to identify concepts. And yes, in general, it's true that the more words you have at your disposal, the greater the quantity and variety of thoughts you can have. But there is also the element of the specific words you use, and how that effects the way you perceive things. This is first seen not in the words you choose (and we'll get to that), but in the words and phrases that are part of the culture you are born into.

A Rose by any Other Name?

The rose was already named when you learned about it, and some have claimed it would smell as sweet by any other name, but is this true? Would a rose smell the same to you if it was called "fish flower?" That name was perhaps a possibility since fish meal is used so often to fertilize these flower bushes. It seems that perceptions would be altered somewhat at least, if the name was not the same. A simple experiment could be arranged to test this hypothesis. All that would be necessary is to have people rate the beauty or scent of various unfamiliar flowers, with some hearing them called a "pretty" name while others heard an "ugly" name. But let's look at some of the science that has already been done regarding the effects words can have on a person's perception.

Almost 40 years ago E.F. Loftus and J.C. Palmer did a few simple experiments that showed just how our perceptions are changed according to the words that are used to describe an event. In one experiment they had 45 participants watch seven short video clips of car accidents. Then they were asked to estimate the speed of the vehicles at the moment of impact, but asked using five different verbs. The estimated speeds were significantly different according to the verb used. For example, when asked, "About how fast were the cars going when they contacted each other?" the average estimate was 31.8 miles per hour. When the question had the word "smashed" instead of "contacted" the average was 40.8 miles per hour.

Even though the same videos were being seen by all, the perception was altered dramatically according to which one word was changed. In another experiment it was found that, depending on the word which was used in the question, subjects who saw one short video of an accident and then returned a week later could easily have their memories manipulated. They were asked on the second visit (without seeing the video again) if they saw any broken glass. Those who, the first time, had been asked to estimate how fast the cars were going when they "smashed" were more than twice as likely to recall seeing broken glass as those who had originally been asked how fast they thought the cars were going when they "hit" each other.

Life Expectancy Altered by a Name

It's clear that the names for things affect how we perceive them, but could our own names in part determine how we will live and even how long we will live. Here is some is some interesting data Richard Wiseman collected while researching his book, "Quirkology:"

1. People with initials that convey something positive (like L.U.V. or J.O.Y.) live about four years longer than average. Those with initials that convey something negative ( P.I.G. and D.I.E. were the examples Wiseman gave), die three years younger than average. This finding was based on an analysis of thousands of Californian death certificates.

2. University students who have "undesirable" names also have higher levels of social isolation.

3. People who have surnames which have negative connotations (Butt, Short, Nasty) are more likely to feel inferior.

4. Surnames may affect one's choice of career. The humorous real-life examples (although by themselves these are just anecdotal) include the law firm of Lawless and Lynch, The pneumonia specialist named Peter Atchoo, a sex counselor with the last name Lust, and Doctor McNutt, who heads a psychiatric hospital.

Using the Effects of Words

How do we consciously choose words that give us new ways to think or better outcomes in minor and major life goals? The research done by Wisemen suggests that if we have a name which might cause problems we could change it. We could also invent new nicknames for ourselves. When I play chess online I have wondered if those who have account user names like "dominator" or "checkandmate" gain some advantage, both from the potential confidence boost they get and by the subtle intimidation that might be felt by some opponents.

I have written about the metaphors we live by on my website devoted to metaphors, and have even speculated on the possible metaphorical basis of consciousness. You can read those for pages for more on potential ways to use your words differently for various effects.


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