Have you ever wished you were a wizard? The kind that can wave his/her wand, pronounce few words and make something happen? No, this is not a trick question. Nor it’s a test on your knowledge of the Harry Potter books either.
Although we primarily think of “magic words” as a purely fictional idea, this may not be quite so after all. In fact, the concept has been studied by psychologists and it’s known as “priming.” Priming means that exposure to a stimulus (certain words, for example) can make us react in a desired way. And it’s no illusion.
Imagine that you are asked to participate in an experiment and are given to read a set of words — for example, “aggressively, bold, rude, bother, disturb, intrude, annoyingly, interrupt, audaciously, brazen, impolitely, infringe, obnoxious, aggravating, and bluntly.” Then, you are requested to go outside your room, find the experimenter, who will then give you the second part of your test.
You do as instructed, only that he is involved in a deep conversation with someone else and don’t notice you. What would you do? Would you wait for him to finish? Maybe. It probably depends on how courteous you are. Well, according to the study results, this is not exactly how this will play out.
On average, over 60% of people will interrupt the experimenter — an outcome, completely unrelated to the way we were brought up — i.e. not to intrude on others’ conversations. Rather, it has everything to do with the words that we have been “primed” with.
The above describes a much-buzzed-about study by John Bargh, a professor of social psychology at Yale University. It yields a rather daunting conclusion — sub-consciously perceived stimuli, such as a string of seemingly random words, can invoke fairly anticipated responses.
When partakers in the test were given “positive” words such as “respect, honor, considerate, patiently, polite,” they waited much longer before deciding to interrupt and only less than 20% did so.
Yet another outcome of the priming effect — part of Dr. Bargh research — is the so-called “sentence scramble test” for which some participants were asked to walk to an elevator (about 10m away), after reading sentences, which contained mixed wording order, such as “Florida,” “bingo,” “wrinkle.” Those primed with the “elderly” words tended to walk slower than the ones who were prepped up with neutral words.
Similar experiments were done by other researchers with different words and even pictures, and the results do support the idea that our behavior can be directly influenced by what we hear, read or see — a notion that’s often fueled our fancy, especially when we were kids.
As grown-ups, however, we think we know better — than such “superpowers” tend to live only in the fantasy world of the books and movies.
But priming is hardly a forgotten notion today, retired to collect dust on a library shelf. It still fascinates marketing gurus and sellers around the world. Just think about the power it has — a potential to make us behave in certain ways or purchase particular brands and goods, even if we didn’t originally intend to do so.
If true, it also means that “our” thinking, actions, moods and decisions may be not precisely originate in our minds but those of another — a skillful influencer, an astute manipulator, or even an innocent or unsuspecting party. And that our “free will” may not be that free after all. It’s the ultimate mind control tool.
This idea is close friends with another concept — a practice so scary that it has been forbidden in most European and North American countries. It is known as “subliminal advertising” and is probably one of the most controversial topics in psychology. Subliminal means “below the threshold” and describes messages that our minds catch without us being aware and to which we are exposed for only less than a second.
A highly famed and criticized experiment was done in 1957 by the marketer James Vicary revealed that when words, such as “Eat popcorn” and “Drink Coca-Cola” were inserted for splits of a second in a movie, the consumption of these products increased. The tests have later discredited a fabrication but the idea, although highly debated, is still enticing to researchers. It even caught the eye of the CIA to be further researched.
In 2015, BBC Radio 4 carried out a public test with 98 participants where they were asked to watch a video. The word “Lipton” flashed every 10 milliseconds, every 5 seconds. Afterward, partakers were assessed on whether they’d rather drink water or Lipton Iced Tea. The results were not encouraging — no significant preference was given to iced tea.
However, not all is pure wish-it-was-real fiction, it seems.
Some other studies claim that subliminal messages may work after all — to a degree. A positive link was found to self-help tapes where people believed that their self-esteem and memory have improved after listening to motivational messages. Product placements in movies and TV shows is another example of subliminal advertising linked to some positive outcomes. So far, though, from what’s public knowledge, it all carries the speculative charm of a conspiracy theory rather being proven science.
There may be more reality in the fiction that we may let ourselves to believe. Aside from priming, some scientists consider that certain words do have “magical” effect on people and may be used to elicit the desired response or an action.
Market research specialists and neuroscientists have long been exploring this concept in order to show that “power words” are real. For example, it is no secret that some linguistic “tricks” can have an influential effect, such as our tone of voice, stressing certain words in a sentence or repeating words.
What studies do confirm, though, in a somewhat definitive fashion, is that different words have varying degrees of power over us.
Certain words, such as “believe, healthy, succeed, and overcome,” for instance, tend to invoke positive emotions, while others as “urgent, limited time, or final hours,” are meant to prompt us to action. Marketing gurus further claim that, to achieve the utmost wham or influence, we need to use more often words as “free, now, you, save, money, easy, guarantee, new, love, results, discovery, proven, safety, because.”
Other studies (by the neurotheologist Andrew Newberg and Prof. Mark Waldman) using fMRI reveal that the “most dangerous word in the world” is…NO. Their study has shown that by only seeing the word, our brains release multiple stress hormones. This, in turn, leads to negative consequences, such as a decrease in our mood levels, logical thinking and communication abilities.
In fact, the same holds true of all negative words. Unfavorable thinking, in general, or the use of words, such as “death, ”illness” and “poverty,” can have a profoundly damaging mental and physical effect on us.
The solution? — Quite simple. Start thinking in positive terms.
It’s barely a break-through idea but positive beliefs influence our brains in a different way — one that can lead to long-lasting happiness, wellbeing and confidence. A small shift in the way we view the world may help break the spell of our “bad luck” and make us feel like anything is possible.
In the end, science tells us that not all words are created equal. Some are more “special” than others, more powerful and dominant — and can help us get into the minds of our opponents and possibly influence their responses or actions.
If used properly, such knowledge can help us advance in our careers, become more persuasive and win over people by just using few skillfully-used phrases. More importantly, though, positive self-talk will allow us to start believing in our stars again as we regain control over our lives.
And finally, the reason why using power words also matters to many of us is that this may as well be as close as we can possibly get to true magic and wizardcraft in the real world.
And who doesn’t like little magic after all?
*This piece originally appeared in the StartUp.