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
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
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