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Why are words powerful?

"Words do more than  describe ideas... they create how we think about things."

Why is it that I can’t remember what was said to me an hour ago, but I can remember the moment a friend in high school told me “no wonder you're so heavy... you practically eat the entire cafeteria.” I was eating a hotdog for lunch. That phrase was said to me nearly 15 years ago—but I can remember it like it was just yesterday.  


It turns out there’s some legitimacy to this idea that words stick—at least-- the meaning behind those words sticks. I sat down with Anne Henly, Ph.D., University of Chicago psychology professor and director of undergraduate research, to try to understand why words can be so powerful. Dr. Henly focuses on the role language has in shaping the way we think. 


“Words are really powerful things. We have any number of words for the same concept and the way we choose those words can affect the way our interlocutors--the people that we’re talking to—think about those issues,” Henly said.


Anne Henly, Ph.D., Psychologist, University of Chicago

Most recently, Dr. Henly’s been especially interested in how the way we talk about things—the way we frame questions, the way that influences responses, and how the words that we choose to talk about particular issues or a particular object—might shape how people (the speaker and the listener) think about that object. 


“The way you frame something can set it up in somebody else’s mind. There’s a classic experiment by psychologists Elizabeth Loftus and John Palmer who asked participants to watch a video of a car accident and then they asked them a lot of questions about that video. One of the questions they asked them was to estimate the speed that the cars were going when they collided. You can ask somebody to estimate the speed that cars were going when they ‘collided’, when they ‘hit’ each other, when they ‘came into contact’. These are all different ways of talking about the very same event that people had just all witnessed. The cars were going at the same speed. But whether you choose the term ‘smashed’ into each other, ‘collided,’ ‘bumped,’ affects dramatically the speed at which people estimate the cars were going.”


What exactly makes words powerful? Dr. Henly says numerous studies have shown that humans aren’t very good at remembering exact phrases or words that were said to them. However, we remember the gist of what those words implied. 


“There's a lot of work that’s been done showing the exact surface level words that are used-- we are not good at remembering; but we are quite good at remembering what was conveyed by those words or what we interpreted those words to mean.”


That’s it in a nutshell, words are powerful because they create ideas and convey meaning. 


“Language is not just a way of conveying information. Language is a way of impacting people. It creates social structure-- it doesn’t just convey it. When you say words are powerful, words are powerful because they do more than describe ideas. Words are powerful because they create how we think about things. And that, of course, has enormous impact on people beyond just the ability to convey information. It allows us to hurt each other and to help each other-- and to think.”


While you may not remember the exact word or phrase that was said to you, you're likely to remember the idea those words created and the feeling you had when that phrase was uttered. Which is exactly why words are so impactful. 

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