There is some evidence that word choice dictates not only how we think but also how we act.

For example, subjects in Bargh's controversial experiment were reported to walk more slowly after reading text with words about the elderly than subjects who read text primed with words about youthful energy.

Also, sometimes people use the word "stress" to express "emphasize."

"Stress" suggests the idea of stress as an emotional response, while "emphasize" is more specific and less emotionally loaded-- less likely to suggest the idea of strain or pressure to a listener.

"Emphasize" may be worth its extra syllables because it doesn't evoke the idea of anxiety.

Another example, Daniel Tammet explains is the word choice of "hare" in lieu of "rabbit" to suggest wild frailty in a poem.

Are there other situations or word choices that are examples of linguistic relativism in that the choice may influence the human experience?

  • 2
    Read Benjamin Lee Whorf, Language, Thought, and Reality. For starts. Then distinguish operationally between language and thought in a way that applies to all humans.
    – jlawler
    Dec 6 '12 at 0:25
  • By certain word choices alone you can still convey the same information as with "neutral word choice" while deeply offending and aggravating the recipient, which will definitely affect their behavior in an obvious and clearly visible manner.
    – SF.
    Dec 6 '12 at 3:11

In Witness for the Defense, Elizabeth Loftus describes how police questioning can influence witnesses into recalling events that never happened. When inappropriately coached, both children and adults can recall false memories and testify tragically in the courtroom.

(Full title: Witness for the Defense: The Accused, the Eyewitness and the Expert Who Puts Memory on Trial, 1992, ISBN-13: 978-0312084554.)

Loftus and Palmer (1974) wrote a paper in which participants viewed a video of a car crash and were asked:

How fast were the cars going when they contacted / hit / bumped / collided / smashed?

Participants not only estimated a higher speed with a more graphic word; they also remembered broken glass more often (even though there was no broken glass in the video).

  • Interesting, this sounds like an anchoring effect. I bet the two are related.
    – 5un5
    Dec 6 '12 at 22:04
  • Yes, @5un5, let me play off your comment and also mention "Thinking, Fast and Slow" by Daniel Kahneman. When the experimenter starts with a number, even an absurdly high one, subjects will guess closer to that number. I think that both Loftus and Kahneman are approaching your idea that a suggested word will influence thought, memory, and experience.
    – rajah9
    Dec 7 '12 at 13:42

The most interesting research is experimental work on grammatical gender and functional words (like prepositions). Lera Boroditsky reviews several recent experiments in this Economist article: http://www.economist.com/debate/days/view/626

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