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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 27-Oct-13


Sunday 27-October-13

The Garden of Words

If you look at a garden, you'll see lots of delicate flowers and a bunch of nasty weeds. Although the flowers vastly outnumber the weeds, and the gardener constantly fights the weeds, the weeds always fight back and somehow survive everything that is thrown at them. Perhaps through evolution, weeds are more varied and more aggressive, for example in the speed of growth and modes of attacking and defending (such as smothering other plants and being poisonous).

The world is like this too. Whilst most people are law-abiding and friendly, criminals are flexible and aggressive, making them difficult to control. Events, likewise, are largely positive, though the few negative ones seem more varied and potent.

In research, Paul Rozin and colleagues have found that this is reflected in language, where in an analysis of 100 million written and spoken words they found far more positive words being used. For example 'good' is used 795 times per million words as compared with 153 uses per million of 'bad'.

Words also often have a positive base, so we say 'happy' and 'unhappy'. Negative words do not use this reversal, so we do not say 'unsad'. We also try to keep the positive spin going by putting good words first, for example saying 'good and bad', not 'bad and good'.

The greater variety of negative events is reflected in the number of words for bad things that simply do not have a positive correlate, such as 'murder' and 'risk'.

The researchers also looked at a wide range of other languages and found an overwhelming similarity, for example in 84 per cent of positive-negative pairs across 20 languages, the positive word is stated first.

So what is the implication for changing minds? A basic principle is that people clearly prefer positivity, so to create harmony one should stick to the nice words. Another way to persuade is to break rules (for example by using fake words like 'unsad') and then take advantage of the ensuing confusion. In any case a deeper understanding of how we communicate is always useful in adaptive methods of influence.

Rozin, P., Berman, L., & Royzman, E. (2010). Biases in use of positive and negative words across twenty natural languages. Cognition & Emotion, 24 (3), 536-548

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