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Words have effects

Author: Priyamvada Modak is a PhD student in Neuroscience and Psychology at Indiana University Bloomington, USA. Her research interests include neuroscience of decision-making in humans, neuroimaging, and neuro-stimulation.

Words, in any language, are the basic elements of communication. We combine various words to form sentences and they convey to others what we have in mind. But are words only a medium of communication?

Wang and Culotta (2019) looked at data from Airbnb, Twitter, and Yelp, and investigated how single-word substitutions affect perception. In other words, how does the perception of one sentence get affected when one word in it is substituted? They found, for example, that substituting the word ‘shops’ with ‘boutiques’ in the sentence ‘there are plenty of shops nearby’ increases the desirability of an Airbnb listing. The same effect was observed by substituting ‘rapidly’ with ‘quickly’ or ‘various’ with ‘several’. Further, in sentences gotten from Yelp reviews and Twitter, substituting the word ‘yummy’ with ‘tasty’ led to an increased perception that the author of the review/tweet is a male. The same effect was observed when ‘precious’ was substituted with ‘valuable’, or ‘amazing’ was substituted with ‘impressive’.

Bradley and Lang (1999) asked people to self-report on a scale of 1-9 how happy vs unhappy (Valence), excited vs calm (Arousal), and controlled vs in-control (Dominance), they felt when reading different words. It is quite interesting to note how different words with similar meanings had different effects, albeit self-reported. For example, as per the ratings, people reported feeling more unhappy, calm, and in-control in case of the word ‘hard’ than ‘hardship’. So, I would guess saying ‘I had a hard time’ would have a different effect on others as compared to saying ‘That time was a hardship for me’ although both convey the same meaning. Further, Tabibnia et al. (2008) showed that people’s decrease in emotional response to aversive images upon re-exposure was significantly* modulated by the words paired with the images indicating that words had an effect on how individuals habituated to the aversive stimuli.

Figure 1: Word cloud generated from a list of keywords of this blog, using

So, as we can see, in addition to conveying our thoughts, words also deliver an effect on others in terms of influencing their mental and emotional states and perception. This makes words not just a medium of communication, but also very powerful tools, capable of affecting the other person in various ways. Due to this, many times words may be employed, with the primary purpose of achieving a certain effect on others regardless of whether they accurately represent one’s true feelings or thoughts. This is the same as how we sometimes eat something only for its taste and not because we are hungry. It may seem trivial but based on how effective its application is, it appears that we don’t really acknowledge this power of words as instruments of delivering effects.

Not surprisingly, people actively use this power of words to their advantage.

Figure 2: Just like these tools, words are also employed to sculpt the perceptions and emotional states of others. IMAGE CREDIT: Lachlan Donald – under the license CC BY 2.0

One of the prime examples of this is the sledging* that happens in Cricket to make the opponent emotionally aroused (and eventually under-perform). These players, in most cases, are cordial off the field and often don’t mean what they said during sledging, which makes sledging a classic example of using words as tools and not as a medium of communication. A related example is that of people using curse words.

Various instances from real life also represent the usage of the words for only their effects (and not literal meaning)– The person at the checkout counter asking you, ‘How are you?’, does not intend for you to literally start telling them how you are, but only intend for you to feel welcomed. Someone telling you ‘You got this’ at your low moment, may not necessarily think that you are in control of the situation but may only be saying so to make you feel confident and optimistic. In fact, some words or combinations of words have been named based on their effect on others, like insults, roasting, teasing, rhetoric, positive affirmations, gaslighting, patronizing, etc. Also, when the words are used purely as instruments without really meaning them just to make others act in a way favorable to one, it may be called manipulating.

Other instances where the power of words is used is, for example, in writing news articles. Berger and Milkman (2012) found that the percentage of positive and negative words contained in an article significantly* predicted its virality over and above other factors related to the specifics of the content of the article. What this means is the choice of words had an effect over and above the content that the articles conveyed and determined whether the article was shared and became viral. Further, the power of words is also used by corporate managers to manipulate the perception of the investors about the company’s performance. Riley and Luippold (2015) report that managers use strategies of obfuscation, that is using unnecessarily big words (like using ‘ordinances’ instead of ‘rules’) and theme manipulation, that is using a greater proportion of positive and optimistic words while delivering bad news.

Now, there may be multiple factors explaining why a certain word leads to a certain perception or effect. For example, in one’s experience, a certain word may have appeared in descriptions of particularly rich and sophisticated places/people and thus, one may form a conscious or subconscious association between that word and sophistication. Such a word, say ‘boutique’, thus may have an effect of perceiving something as sophisticated when used to describe it. There could be social and cultural factors also that may explain this phenomenon. However, the purpose of this blog is not to explore the reasons behind these effects but to highlight that words have effects.

In my opinion, the fact that renders us the ability to use words as tools so effectively is that we have multiple words for the same meaning, and they appear differentially across various contexts. For example, consider the results of the study with Airbnb listings above – the word ‘several’ may have led to a more favorable perception of an Airbnb listing because one may have heard/read it in pleasant contexts such as ‘several flowers’ as compared to the word ‘various’ which one may have read in unpleasant contexts such as ‘various casualties’. If we had one-to-one mapping between the meanings and words, for example in computer languages, then, I believe, the words would not have much role beyond communicating the meaning. They would still have an effect on the reader/listener based on the meaning they conveyed but we will not have a way to manipulate the effect by using an alternative word. Using the words for a particular effect would need to be done at the cost of the meaning in such a one-to-one mapping.

Finally, it is important to acknowledge words as powerful tools that are/can-be applied to affect the listeners/readers in a particular way. News outlets, election campaigners, or anyone advertising anything to us, like even someone writing their LinkedIn or dating profile, use this power of words to market themselves or their product.  Knowledge of this can not only help us guard ourselves against an exploitative use of this power but may also allow us to use it in positive ways.


*‘Significantly’ qualifies a result as something whose probability of occurring by chance is very low (<0.05). Results reported in this blog must be assumed significant only when this word is used for them. *Sledging might happen in every sport, but the term is specific to Cricket and involves one player verbally insulting another.


  1. Wang, Z., & Culotta, A. (2019, July). When do words matter? Understanding the impact of lexical choice on audience perception using individual treatment effect estimation. In Proceedings of the AAAI Conference on Artificial Intelligence (Vol. 33, No. 01, pp. 7233-7240).
  2. Bradley, M. M., & Lang, P. J. (1999). Affective norms for English words (ANEW): Instruction manual and affective ratings (Vol. 30, No. 1, pp. 25-36). Technical report C-1, the center for research in psychophysiology, University of Florida.
  3. Tabibnia, G., Lieberman, M. D., & Craske, M. G. (2008). The lasting effect of words on feelings: words may facilitate exposure effects to threatening images. Emotion, 8(3), 307.
  4. Berger, J., & Milkman, K. L. (2012). What makes online content viral?. Journal of marketing research, 49(2), 192-205.
  5. Riley, T. J., & Luippold, B. L. (2015). Managing investors’ perception through strategic word choices in financial narratives. Journal of Corporate Accounting & Finance, 26(5), 57-62.

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