Whoever said that the pen is mightier than the sword definitely knew what they were talking about. To humans, words are more than a means of communication, they can shape our beliefs, behaviors, feelings and ultimately our actions. Although swords can coerce us, and threaten, nothing is more powerful than a tool which can shape our opinions.
When it comes to language and communication, the rule is that it’s not what you say, but what people hear. Words are one of the most powerful tools that we as humans possess; they can ignite revolutions or defuse tension. The problem is that words are underestimated as being central to thought and behavior processing as well as decision making.
Dr. Frank Luntz, author of Words That Work: It’s not what you say, It’s what people hear describes the decision making process and communication based on feeling rather than information. “80 percent of our life is emotion, and only 20 percent is intellect, says Luntz in a PBS interview. “I am much more interested in how you feel than how you think. I can change how you think, but how you feel is something deeper and stronger, and it's something that's inside you. How you think is on the outside, how you feel is on the inside, so that's what I need to understand.”
This image shows the processing of language and the different organs and processes that go into analyzing, delivering and understanding language. Photo credit: National Science Foundation
Working as a pollster and a linguistics consultant, Luntz advises the Republican Party on their usage of words, their communications to the press and the world, and in a sense, changes the way that they direct their language to achieve the results that they desire from the public as a whole.
Because we hear so many words and messages in our daily lives, we have developed a system to deal with certain types of messages. People can engage in two types of message processing, either central processing, which is an active and critical thinking process, or peripheral processing, which takes cues from other parts of the message, and evaluates based on other things besides the actual meaning of the message. Central processing is triggered by certain queues, such as involvement and immediacy. In short, if something is going to affect someone and soon, they are going to listen carefully to the message. If they are interested, or compelled to listen, they are much less likely to evaluate what you are saying on a central level.
When it comes to messages of the mass media, most Americans process the information peripherally. This also includes political messages and information. When it comes to politics, the complexity of issues are reduced to peripheral cues like source credibility, attractiveness and emotional words like responsibility and family values.
When it comes to mass media messages, Americans process most information peripherally. Issues such as complexity and disinterest in the message can lead to decision making based on surrounding cues instead of triggering central processing and an active decision.
Politics is full of messages that are designed to trigger peripheral processing cues and behavior based on emotion rather than information. One word can be completely neutral in emotion while another word meaning the exact same thing can either spark love or rage in those that hear it. The emotion is the trigger, finding the words that cause the emotion is the job of linguistics experts like Luntz. His advise and consultation are partially responsible for the name change of the "Estate tax" to the "Death tax" and its subsequent elimination. "For years, political people and lawyers used the phrase "estate tax." And for years they couldn't eliminate it. The public wouldn't support it because the word "estate" sounds wealthy, explains Luntz. "Someone like me comes around and realizes that it's not an estate tax, it's a death tax, because you're taxed at death. And suddenly something that isn't viable achieves the support of 75 percent of the American people. It's the same tax, but nobody really knows what an estate is. But they certainly know what it means to be taxed when you die."
Republicans have also crafted their language to neutralize the fear of hazards due to global warming. Instead of referring to global warmer, the concept is dubbed "climate change" which lessens fears associated with global warming. Because of this change of behaviors and beliefs simply by the change of words, Luntz has been accused of manipulating language and therefore the audience absorbing the message.
The manipulation is not only isolated to the political or corporate world. Science and science research have also attracted suspicious glances from the public. This is why issues such as stem cells research and other breakthrough technologies are reacted to as vehemently as they are. The public, without proper tools to understand, and bombarded with complicated names and jargon of the science and health fields, are left to jumping on hot button issues like stem cell research. For example, I recently wrote an article about new technologies to reprogram adult tissue cells to pluripotent iPS cells. A reader commented on my article, suggesting that scientists use language to manipulate the public and hide behind words to avoid the hassle from the public. According to the reader, " Scientist have to be more careful about the names they give to their new (life-linked) researches and all of its parts in order to avoid "Xtrem moralists", superstitious and "Science/Tech/Research enemies" witch all the time, are searching and digging for any word slim linkable to any moralist religious or superstitious concepts just to obstruct or forbid it. If Steam Cells technologies had been called something like "XMFT-007" from its beginnings, Science wouldn't have gotten all the troubles it has due ignorance. So next time, get abstract names for your new life-linked Research."
Hiding behind abstract language is not the answer, effective communication is the key. This is another reason why people in power should use language which demonstrates clarity and reduces emotion. The public is also responsible for processing their information and relying on intellect instead of solely relying on peripheral cues. To better understand the way we react to information, research on communication is vital to understanding our reactions, emotions and how they build our behaviors and actions. With this information, we can better prepare effective communication to the public and also guard ourselves from fallacious or leading information designed to target our emotions. Because in the end "Its not what you say, its what they hear."