Do you cheat or are you a cheater? There’s a difference!

How would you feel if someone called you a cheater? What if instead, they told you that you were cheating? Do you think the small alteration in the way they framed the word “cheat” would cause your behavior to change? A recent study suggests that, in fact, it does!

Three psychologists, Christopher Bryan, Gabrielle Adams, and Benoît Monin, recently published a study where they conducted three experiments in order to examine the subtle changes that language can have on our behavior. They suggest that small changes in wording can actually influence behavior by intertwining it with our identity. We all have an innate desire to be looked upon favorably. So, we want the decisions that we make to be positive if they are going to be a reflection of who we truly are. Framing words either as self-relevant or not can influence behavior in a given situation by associating that behavior with the self. Self-relevant nouns are any that refer directly to you or any label you might give yourself, such as winner, teacher, driver, etc. The researchers in this study suggest that assigning the label of a self-relevant noun can actually make you more likely to engage in behavior related to that noun. However, they wanted to see whether attributing negative self-relevant nouns to the self would cause individuals to be less likely to engage in behavior related to the noun.

In the first experiment, participants were told that they were going to engage in a task where they could win $5. Before the task, they were told to read a short set of instructions explaining that the game would be aimed at understanding cheating on college campuses. However, there were two possible sets of instructions that a participant could receive; the first used the word cheat as a verb (i.e. “we’re interested in how common cheating is”) and the second used the word as a self-relevant noun (i.e. “we’re interested in how common cheaters are”). Then, the participants were told to think of a number between 1 and 10. Once they said that they had a number in mind, they were told they would receive $5 if their number was even and nothing if it was odd. The researchers then compared the number of students who said they did indeed think of a even number in these conditions, to the number of students who said they thought of an even number when their was no monetary gain (this was used a baseline to see how often people actually think of an even number). And it did! People who were asked to think of a number between 1 and 10 with no monetary gain did so 19.2% of the time. Similarly, participants who read instructions with the noun “cheater” stated that they thought of an even number 20.8% of the time. This suggests that those in the self-relevant condition were honest. On the other hand, people who received instructions with the verb “cheating” reported thinking of an even number 50.0% of the time. This is over double what those in the “cheater” condition reported! People who were presented with the self-relevant noun were less likely to cheat because they didn’t want the word “cheater” to be associated with their identity.

The researchers conducted two follow up experiments, and found similar results. Participants took an online survey that asked them to flip a coin 10 times and report their results. They were also told that every time they flipped heads, they would win $1. Like the previous study, they were either given instructions with “cheat” as a verb or a self-relevant noun. Additionally, there was one condition where the instructions made no mention of cheating whatsoever. The results from these two experiments found that participants who were presented with instructions using “cheat” as a verb and those who were given instructions with no mention of cheating reported flipping heads significantly more than those in the self-relevant noun condition. These results suggest that even when you tell people not to cheat, they still will just as much as if you hadn’t told them; however, this only occurs if you present cheating as a verb with no relevance to the self. On the other hand, if you relate cheating to the self by using it as a noun, people actually will cheat less – they don’t want their identity of the self to be associated with cheating!

This study illuminates the immense potential that subtle language changes can have on behavior. Public service announcements can be rephrased in ways that may be more effective than they are now. The phrase “Don’t use drugs” can be slightly modified to, “Don’t be a drug user”, and according to this research, that should actually make people use drugs less. So, next time you want to influence someone’s behavior, try a little language manipulation!

Bryan, C. J., Adams, G. S., Monin, B. (2013). When cheating would make you a cheater: Implicating the self prevents unethical behavior. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 142, 1001-1005. doi: 10.1037/a0030655

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