Julie Sedivy is the lead author of Sold on Language: How Advertisers Talk to You And What This Says About You. She contributes regularly to Psychology Today and Language Log. She is an adjunct professor at the University of Calgary, and can be found at juliesedivy.com and on Twitter/soldonlanguage.
Should homosexuals should be allowed to serve in the military? Let me rephrase that: Should gay men or lesbians be allowed to serve in the military?
You may have detected within yourself a subtle emotional shift between these two questions. For many Americans, according to a 2010 poll by CBS and The New York Times, those subtly different gut reactions actually led to different responses depending on how the question was worded; people were more receptive to having “gay men and lesbians” than “homosexuals” in the military.
The poll reflects one of the weirder aspects of human cognition: that for all of our capacity for rational, analytical thought, we can have different feelings about the same thing—even make different decisions about it—depending on the language used to talk about it. This phenomenon, known as the framing effect, creates some brisk business for marketers and political communications experts. For example, Frank Luntz, a high-profile consultant for Republican candidates, earns his keep by testing the emotional vibrations set off by language, and keeps lists of words that work, and words that don’t. In advancing a conservative agenda, for example, you should never use phrases like public health care, drilling for oil, or tax cuts; you should instead say government-run health care, energy exploration, and tax relief. (You can find a brief video profile of Luntz and his techniques here, taken from the 2004 PBS documentary The Persuaders.)
That’s probably no way to run a democracy. After all, the economic impact of reducing taxes is the same whether you call it cuts or relief. And it’s probably no way to make investment choices either, or a decision about medical treatment, or render a verdict in a murder trial. So one of the most useful questions that psychology can answer is what can be done to shift the mind away from an instinctive, gut-reaction mode to a more thoughtful and deliberative one.
In an intriguing study reported in the April 2012 issue of Psychological Science, Boaz Keysar and his colleagues found that bilinguals were immune to framing effects and other cognitive biases—but only when working through problems in their non-native language.