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Guest Post: Words Affect Behavior

Guest Post: Words Affect Behavior

Posted by Andrea Elliott on May 15th 2016

This post is brought to you by HABA USA and written by guest blogger and board gamer Wesley Jones.

shadowHere are 3 real university studies. After reading them, can you see what they all might have in common? (Hint: The title gives it away)

Study 1 A study performed at New York University placed students in two groups. One group of students was given a set of words associated with old age and told to form meaningful sentences out of those words; words such as, wrinkle, gray, bald, bingo. However, they were not told the words were associated with old age and explicit words like old and elderly were not included. The 2nd group was given a different set of random, neutral words.

When each group finished their task, they were sent down a hall to another room where they were to complete a 2nd assignment. During the walk down the hall, they were recorded on camera and timed on how fast they walked. This walk down the hall was the real test and was what the experiment was really about. The camera recording and timing of their walk showed that the group who were given words associated with old age walked slower than the other group!

Study 2 This study also involved 2 groups of people. The first group was told they would be working on puzzles together with others, even though they would be working on these puzzles from different rooms. They were told they would exchange tips with others via an intermediary in order to figure out the puzzle. The 2nd group would be doing the same thing, but were not told beforehand they would be working together with anyone. But they also got tips from a person (the intermediary from the first group), but they thought the tips they received were simply from that person and thus not being shared from others. Those who were told they were working together with others worked 48% longer, solved more problems correctly and were less tired after the puzzle challenge.

Study 3 In this study-- again with 2 groups of people, researchers used certain words and ideas to make one group feel happy and different words and ideas to make another group feel sad. Then they would give them a set of arguments in favor of a given issue. The sad people were not easily swayed but the happy people were much more easily swayed.

What is the Lesson? So, can you think of what these studies have in common—what they might teach us? They teach us that behavior is unconsciously affected by exposure to words or ideas. Or, to state it in the reverse: The words and ideas we hear or read, will unconsciously affect our behavior and actions. (Interestingly, on that first study, when the students of the first group were afterward questioned about their task, none of them detected a common theme, nor would they acknowledge that their behavior had been affected unconsciously by the words they encountered. But it had!)

This knowledge—that words and ideas affect behavior-- has tremendous effect on how we might talk to our children and to each other.

For example, if you want your kids (or spouse or anyone) to have a great day, you need to convey happy, positive language at the beginning of the day. Their behavior will unwittingly be affected by your language. If you want your children to have great self esteem, you need to convey positive language about them and their minds and bodies and their actions. They need to be told they amount to something, that they are worthwhile and are needed and loved.

A Personal Example When I was young, my parents woke us up to get ready for breakfast and school. My siblings and I hated it when our Dad woke us up. He would just pop into the bedroom, turn on the light and yell, “TIME TO GET UP!!!” and leave. Harsh lights, abrupt loud voice—Ugh! No one likes to be woken up like that!

My mom, on the other hand, when she woke us up would come in sweetly and quietly, never turn on the light but would leave the door open so a little light filtered in, and sing some rendition of this refrain, “My little chickadees~~It’s that time again~~ I love you all, you’re such wonderful children~~ It’s going to be another great day!” Ahh, that is how a child should be woken up!

Based on the studies above, can you see how these beautiful, loving words from my mother would unconsciously affect our day in a positive way? And how the sudden harsh light and loud grating “TIME TO GET UP!!” from my father might negatively affect our thoughts and behavior for that day? (My father was a great man, BTW, he just always got to the point).

Another Example My wife and I usually take a walk together, hand-in-hand, before we go to work each day. At first, we would discuss our children and their problems and our concerns and worries about them and work and whatever. But I remembered these studies (above) and knew that this kind of negative talk would unconsciously (and perhaps even consciously) affect my behavior and actions throughout the rest of the day. In fact, I started to notice that I was not in that great a mood after these walks and talk—our talk always focused on the negative! So I asked my wife, if it was alright from now on to focus on positive, happy conversation during these morning walks and we could discuss problems at night or another time (where the unconscious negative effects might wear off during sleep). I wanted our mornings to start out positively because I knew that our words would affect our behavior that day—even unknowingly!

Yet a 3rd Example At work, my boss is a practical joker, always laughing, smiling, saying funny things and playing innocuous practical jokes on people (and a few not so innocuous). He makes our work environment bearable and even fun. When he would be gone on vacation or on a trip, I started to notice that we were a bit more glum and work was a bit more dreary for all of us. I don’t think I would have noticed that if I hadn’t known about these studies. Thus, I verified yet again, that the words and ideas we hear can affect our behavior, whether we are aware of it or not.

Conclusion Some people like to read scripture in the morning or, on their commute to work, listen to positive talks or books on CD or MP3. They are starting their day hearing words like, “light, happiness, positive, forgiveness, joy, redeem” etc. Hearing or reading these words will affect their behavior, perhaps consciously but definitely unconsciously as well. What a great way to start the day!

And as for your children, someone I admire once said this: “Try not to compare your children, even if you think you are skillful at it. You may say most positively that “Susan is pretty and Sandra is bright,” but all Susan will remember is that she isn’t bright and Sandra that she isn’t pretty. Praise each child individually for what that child is, and help him or her escape our culture’s obsession with comparing, competing, and never feeling we are “enough.””

Because we know that whatever we hear or read will affect our actions, let’s make an exerted effort to praise our children and loved ones individually. In our walk and talk, let's do a little more uplifting, encouraging, inspiring and telling them we love them. I hope we can Ignore inappropriate behavior, as much as possible and focus on the good in the world. If we can do this then slowly, unconsciously, our behavior and their behavior will change and improve.