Language, emotions and decision making

Some time ago, I got a pile of books in a library clearance. There are some real gems among them – some of the books, I knew beforehand that they were special, such as a copy of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations; others, I am discovering how special they are as I ‘work’ my way through the pile. Yesterday, I started reading one of the books in the latter category. It is ‘Straight and Crooked Thinking’, by Robert H Thouless. What a great book.

It is a smallish book – about 200 pages – first published in 1930. This book is about the development of arguments, particularly when ‘cold, unemotional thinking is required’, as explained in the book’s back cover. The book draws on numerous examples from politics, religion and others, to expose the logical fallacies in some common arguments.

The book starts with a chapter examining the different ways of using language to state facts or to convey emotions. For instance, when describing someone who refuses to be influenced by other people’s opinions (a fact), we can use different adjectives such as ‘firm’, ‘obstinate’ or ‘pig-headed’. Even though these three words have the same objective meaning, they convey very different emotions about the person whom we are describing.

Consider this recent example from the British press. The UK government launched a new campaign – the Swapathon – encouraging families to make small lifestyle changes. As part of this campaign, the government gave £50 vouchers to families, who could exchange them for healthy food and health-related activities. The state owned BBC reported the initiative with the headline “’Great Swapathon’ voucher bid to boost healthy living”. The Daily Mail described the initiative under the headline “Backlash over £50 vouchers bribe to boost healthy eating”, whereas The Independent used the headline “Free vouchers offered to boost healthy living”.

All headlines refer to the same action – namely, giving the vouchers. Yet, each publication uses a different term. The verb ‘offer’ has positive undertones, associated with the giving of a present, expecting nothing in return. The word ‘bid’ could be associated with a commercial setting, whereas the term ‘bribe’ conveys the negative image of a desperate (possibly illicit) action.

This would all be rhetoric were it not for the fact that words – and emotions – greatly influence our thinking and decision-making, as I discussed in this post. The labels that we attach to people, products or firms influence not only how we judge them, but also how we perceive those same individuals, products or organisations m in the first place. That is, words and how we use them impose self-fulfilling biases.

The inference is that we start making decisions based on the emotional label, not the subject to which the label is attached. And emotions do not lead to fair, objective decisions, as noted by Thouless. The finding has important ramifications for decision making in a business context: the gap (between the emotional reactions towards certain things or actions and the properties of those things or actions themselves) offers an opportunity for a firm that is able to see beyond the emotion to make a better decision, and capitalise on a marketing opportunity. And the same applies for a consumer able to see through the emotions created by word play. As someone said, there is no such thing as ‘just semantics’.

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