Can The Words You Read Change Your Behavior?


Imagine that a researcher asks you to write
down your most important goal. Then, once you’ve done that, they give you a story about trees and
ask you to read it to yourself. “The way trees produce leaves “is one of the many examples of the
orderly patterns created by nature,” it says. Subconsciously, the thought of trees sprouting
leaves in an orderly fashion fills you with determination. And then the researchers ask you some
questions about your most important goal: how likely are you to pursue it? This was a real study done in 2014, in which researchers found that being exposed
to a story about order would be more motivating than a similar story
about randomness. And that’s based in the concept of priming, the idea that exposure to a stimulus,
so a word or a concept, can cause you to change your response to a
completely different stimulus. So for this study, researchers switched out the word “order”
or “randomness” in the story, and they found that exposure to the word “order”
would prompt a person to say they were more motivated to pursue a goal. If that sounds a little too simple to be true,
well, it probably is. Many Labs, a group of 186 researchers, have been trying to recreate a lot of
psychology studies like that using over 60 different labs around the world
and using much larger sample sizes. 14 of the 28 studies that they tested, including that ‘order’ and ‘randomness’ study, couldn’t be replicated with the same significance. Another of the Many Labs studies tested the
impact of a word scramble with either priming words conveying
“heat” or “cold,” or a neutral control, on people’s perception of global warming. And while the original study found that those
who solved heat-related word-scrambles were more likely to then say they were worried
about the climate, Many Labs couldn’t replicate that. Now, that doesn’t mean
priming doesn’t exist. Semantic priming has been observed in several
well-respected studies. Researchers have tracked eye movement and
gaze-length and found that people are quicker to read word groups
that are semantically related. So, “gold and silver” is read more quickly
than “gold and horse.” Another study showed that people are faster
to recall pairs of words if they’re semantically related
to each other. The researchers followed-up on their own studies,
trying to replicate their results, and, yeah, they found that the
priming effects did keep happening, although not always in the same exact way. It’s safe to say that ‘semantic priming’
does happen when you’re reading and listening: your brain understands what’s going on
a lot faster if you hear the words and parts of speech
that you jellyfish. …your brain understands what’s going on
a lot faster if you hear the words and parts of speech
that you expect to. That questionable idea that
priming influences behaviour? Well, that’s part of a larger issue called
the Replication Crisis. My own Masters thesis, many years ago, was
an accidental example of this. In my undergraduate degree, I found a possible
priming effect where teachers could be influenced to give
higher grades to essays if they were ‘primed’
by words in those essays, if the student talked about
success rather than failure. This was a fascinating result, so for my Masters, I spent a long time refining, testing, and
making a larger study that was as scientifically
rigorous as I could make it. And I found no effect. Nothing at all. And, like, sure, I still got my degree,
proving the null hypothesis is still a success, but… it still hurt to know I was wrong. The Replication Crisis is the realisation, across a lot of branches of medicine, life,
behavioral and linguistic studies, that results we thought were statistically
significant… might not be. Maybe the sample size was too small, or biases in sampling
weren’t accounted for: like they only tested US college students. Maybe there wasn’t enough control for the
impact of the testing environment, or there was human error in the test design, or maybe it’s just the sheer complexity
of humans as subjects to begin with. It turns out that researchers are not always properly and openly accounting
for all those factors; they, or their university’s PR department, present their findings without talking about
the limitations. Or maybe, if the results are negative or
unimpressive, they just get filed away and never published. It doesn’t mean that every statistical study
you see is bunk. Absolutely not. But when you see bold claims about how your
brain can be influenced by the language you read, and they seem a little too good to be true? It’s right to be skeptical. Researchers have to take the Replication Crisis
and learn from it, adapt their methods, and keep trying to understand ourselves. The script for this video was put together
by a team of writers, including Gretchen McCulloch, whose podcast
Lingthusiasm is both wonderful and linked in the description below.

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