How language shapes the future

“Words form the thread on which we string our experiences.”  – Aldous Huxley

Two interesting articles I read today focus on the impact of language on our behaviour, providing evidence that the way we frame choices and how we describe those choices shape our subsequent behaviour.

Jonah Lehrer reports on an experiment in which subjects were split into two groups to perform a “thinking” task (rearranging anagrams) – one group were told to focus on doing the task (“I will”), the other to focus on whether they could do it (Will I?”).  The “Will I?” group outperformed the “I will” group, prompting me to wonder if Nike’s “Just Do It” should be replaced with “Can You Do It?”.  The findings would seem to confirm Dan Pink’s argument in Drive (as reported by Inspector Insight) that intrinsic motivation and personal responsibility are far more motivating than extrinsic factors, and lead to better performance.  Another piece of work I recently read (and unfortunately cannot remember) showed that young children who were given no reward or a random reward for completing tasks performed much better over time than those who were always given a reward who became bored and demotivated after continuing the “game” over many weeks.

In a very different study, scientists showed that bilingual Arab-Israelis’ performance on the Implicit Association Test depended on which language was used for the test – that is, their opinions of the association of good and bad traits with Arab and Jewish names differed in Hebrew and Arab.  I believe this shows the underlying power of the concepts that words and symbols represent in our minds, depending completely on the contexts of the experiences which formed those symbols.

For all of us it reinforces the importance of how we use language for ourselves as well as in our interactions with others.  Language has huge symbolic power to frame our thinking and drive behavioural outcomes, so always use wisely!

Can you do it?


Will I? by Jonah Lehrer

A person’s language may influence the way he thinks about other people by Association for Psychological Science

Drive by Dan Pink (2010)

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