The Power of Words: Are we like sheep or just community minded?

Sheep-Behaviorist Jen Shang, who specializes in the psychology of giving, has shown in recent studies that words – especially words of kindness – can be very persuasive. From her studies, she says that when some combination of nine adjectives – kind, caring, compassionate, helpful, friendly, fair, hard-working, generous and honest – are included in fundraising solicitations, women increase their giving by an average of 10 percent. Clearly, women strive to be moral.

Men, she says, tend to respond to words like strong, responsible and loyal. I guess gender differences are still more pronounced than I would have suspected, though I would like nothing better than to be considered kind and caring, and I know many men who feel the same way.

And while stark images of starving children or earthquake victims get people’s initial attention and may persuade potential donors to learn more about the crisis, the images do not necessarily encourage giving over the long term.

So, it would seem that words are persuasive, maybe more so than images – which is not a big revelation to someone who writes for a living.

On the other hand, some words are too abstract to get a rise. Words like “environment.” Policymakers and environmentalists have long been frustrated by people who claim to worry about the environment – and consider themselves “environmentalists” – but are unwilling to adjust lifestyles or change their behaviors in any significant way. No surprise here. All I have to do is look in the mirror.

According to Professor Robert B. Cialdini of Arizona State University, that’s because people tend to respond more to the “normative” behaviors of their community than abstractions. Does this suggest, we’re brainless sheep? Maybe.

Here’s an example that many travelers will recognize. When a hotel urges guests to reuse their towels for the sake of the planet, convenience and luxury tend to work against the noble goal. Perhaps the more cynical among us may just see this as the hotel’s way of cutting costs.

Nevertheless, Professor Cialdini’s research has found that the best way to persuade guests to reuse towels is to inform them that a majority of the previous guests in that room did NOT change towels daily. Similarly, in a study to determine how to get people to reduce home energy use, subjects were more likely to comply if they were told that all their neighbors were doing it. Conserving energy to save money or the planet didn’t do the trick.

“People need to be in alignment with their contemporaries,” says the professor. “It validates them. It becomes something they should do and can do.” Perhaps this is why wind turbines in Europe are accepted in counties with high-priced homes, but are resisted like the plague (Not in my backyard!) in the U.S. Variations in the attitudes about community responsibility seem to make the difference. Imagine the differences in the cocktail party chatter in the suburbs of Houston and the suburbs of Amsterdam.

So the word “environment” may be too abstract, but if you bring the subject down to earth, and tie it to a reward of neighborly alignment then, bingo, you get the response you want. Like it or not, most people, essentially, follow the crowd.

Does this mean words aren’t persuasive? Of course they are. It just depends on which ones you choose and how you use them – or whom you pick to string them together. The key is to provide context and connection to other human beings to get the results you want.

7 comments on “The Power of Words: Are we like sheep or just community minded?

  1. Don,

    Great post. The right words can make the difference in influencing people to take action. A good book on the nuances of words is “Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear” by Republican pollster Frank Luntz. Regardless of your political inclination, Luntz shows how different words test better with the public in polling, showing how subtle shifts in language can reframe an entire issue. And that the first party to frame the issue has the upper hand in controlling the debate. Shifting from “global warming” to “climate change” for example, has removed the impact of weather change out of the language, fostering inaction on the issue.

  2. Pertaining to the hotel guest towels, we had a great experience recently, we’re just back from vacation. We visited FL and stayed at the Sheraton Suites Key West and a door card hanger offered a $5 credit for each night we chose to hang it and forego receiving fresh towels the next day when house cleaning came to tidy up. We could use the credits towards hotel amenities, meals in their restaurant, or save them for another stay. Really cool! We bought fruity drinks that we drank while relaxing in the hot tub! I thought this was a great idea!

  3. Language…the words we select and use; context…making sure we understand the the impact and relationship of the meanings of those words; and connection…we are interrelated and in this together. Buddhists call it “kind speech”, being careful with our words in the fullest context of impact on others and our society.
    Great post Don, thought-provoking as always. You are kind and caring, man.

  4. Linda Ellwein on

    Food for thought, Don. I was struck by your wind turbine example. Working in sustainability in rural communities out west, farmers were pro-wind as an income stream since the water table levels was lowering, threatening the ability to irrigate. The collective community hope was reduction of energy costs in time, and a another step towards becoming a self sustaining community. Overall, the common sense outweighed the distasteful idea of losing a spectacular view to looming steel towers. Sustainability based in natural and renewable resources seemed to be the one thing rural and urban, liberal and conservative found common ground on. Except the more extreme environmental activists who were more concerned with issues, than solutions – and refused to look at the whole. Thanks for another good article…in the case of resource conflicts and decision making in communities, language is everything. And shoes. Don’t wear Birkenstocks to a rural meeting out west if you’re there to propose change. Only cowboy boots will do. 😉

  5. Don, thanks for reaffirming the first principle of what we branded as Perception Management in the days when Burson Marsteller was still interested in leading the thinking. We called it the principle of relevance — of making sure that the desired behaviour was appropriately ” hooked” into the perception set( mental frame of reference built over years of cultural, community, familial and experiential influences) governing the particular individuals or target groups in question.
    This obviously also meant that in executing a campaign the choice of visual and verbal cues, the actual words and pictures, had to be aligned to the relevant set.

    We are not all sheep, some of us are goats, some lions and some elephants. We need to know when to roar and when to hoot.

    Thanks for always writing so clearly and provocatively about our craft, and about the things we always take for granted.

  6. Maria Helena Sato on

    Thanks, Don, for this great post!

  7. Your words persuaded me. Baa!

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