What’s in a word?

What is in a word, indeed. Obviously, there’s letters, but just as obviously so, that is not all there is to words. Wording and framing of messages has effect on outcomes, and that isn’t exactly a novel finding either. Obviously, the way you put things matters (“Get your ass off the chair and do some jogging” does sound a bit less pleasant than “hey, you could go jog a bit for a while, after reading this post”). But even deeper, the words themselves can matter.

 

Take a trash can that says ‘trash’. Well that is just wonderful. In case you were wondering what the can with bag in it was doing in the corner of the room, there you have it. Perhaps it is even sided by two other bins, But what if the trash bin instead said “landfill“. Now instead of thinking yourself a hero for tossing your stuff in the bin, rather than leaving them on the table, floor or cabinet, you are reminded of the detrimental effect your behaviour has on the environment. No one likes landfills (with an exception to raccoons, maybe). You might reconsider your ‘offence’ of throwing away trash in that bin, if it could actually be recycled as paper, glass or plastic.

 

Now there is nothing in the word landfill that is preventing you from throwing the trash in the bin. Nor is it a lie, per se, because much of the stuff that is thrown in the regular bins will either get burnt or end up on a landfill. The mere word is just a small alteration in the decision-makers environment, and it can affect our behaviour without forcing us to. In other words, this would be considered a nudge (in the right direction).

 

Quite negative, though, to go around naming trash bins for landfills. What if you really do have trash and it does not fit in any other category but the ‘landfill-bin’? First of all, my compliments, because it most likely means you’ve already recycled all the rest. Secondly, there is also an alternative strategy. take the paper bin. What if it said ‘save the forest, recycle paper’, rather than ‘paper’? Here are some other great slogans to consider (from here): “Money grows on trees: Recycle paper” or “Reuse old news!” or “Why recycle glass? The answer is clear”. One mmarvellousthing I remember from my childhood in Holland, were the paper trash cans in an amusement park there. They said (in a slightly mmetallicsounding audio-recorded voice that is unnoticed by kids) “paper here” (it rhymes in Dutch, ‘papier hier’). What was great, however, was the immediate feedback you got when you tossed something in. It said ‘thank you!’. The result: kids started begging parents and others around them for trash, so they could toss it in. Of course I am deviating a bit from ‘words’ here, since this is more related to feedback but the point is, as always: small changes in the environment can mean the world!

 

The point of it all is that with wording (sometimes specific words, sometimes sentences) we can hope to change people’s behaviour without infringing on their own decision making power. This is in psychology also known as ‘framing’. Tversky & Kahneman’s famous framing effect is an example. See the choice they gave people in two different treatments:

Experiment set-up by Tversky & Kahneman (1981)

 

When framed positively, most participants chose for saving 200 people, rather than gambling. But when framed negatively, participants instead chose to gamble. Odd, isn’t it? the idea behind it, according to Tversky and Kahneman, is that people react differently to things in a loss frame or a gain frame. In a negative frame, people avoid risks, but look for them in positively framed situations. Note, though, how effectively all of the presented options are the same in expected outcomes.

 

Anyway, let’s not dive too deep into the seminal paper of Tversky and Kahneman (although I do recommend it, if you haven’t read it before). The point, once again, is that message wording and framing matters. Moreover, what matters is if we are looking at preventing or promoting behaviour. Say what? Preventing would be to ‘stop people from drinking’ and promoting would be to ‘stimulate people to bike to work more often’. Or promoting recycling versus preventing the tossing of waste in the standard bin. We learn from prior studies in health behaviour that gain frames work better with prevention behaviour, but seriously, there are so many contextual factors to consider that it is very difficult to say if this also goes for environmentally friendly (types of) behaviour. It is also likely to depend on the mindset of the individual, and so it all becomes a very unpredictable jumble of factors about which we really cannot say much other than it is worth more research, particularly the effects on specific pro-environmental acts in specific situations among a certain target group of people. We can say that, and that there is a chance framing may matter! Now isn’t that enough to consider trying it? For me as a scientist, it definitely is!

 

 

Source & Reading suggestion:

Tversky, Amos; Kahneman, Daniel (1981). “The Framing of decisions and the psychology of choice”. Science 211 (4481): 453–458. 

Rothman, A. J., Bartels, R. D., Wlaschin, J. and Salovey, P. (2006), The Strategic Use of Gain- and Loss-Framed Messages to Promote Healthy Behavior: How Theory Can Inform Practice. Journal of Communication, 56: S202–S220.

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