I've written before about how pervasive 'spin' is today. But I just happened to read more about it in You Are Not So Smart by David McRaney.
In the chapter entitle "The Misinformation Effect," he discusses an interesting experiment conducted in 1974 at the University of Washington. Participants watched a video of a car crash and were then asked to estimate how fast the cars were going. But the participants were divided into groups and the phrasing of the question was different for each group. These were the different variations:
- About how fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other?
- About how fast were the cars going when they collided into each other?
- About how fast were the cars going when they bumped into each other?
- About how fast were the cars going when they hit each other?
- About how fast were the cars going when they contacted each other?
Remember, everyone watched the same video. The only difference is the wording of the question. Here are the average answers for each participant group:
- Smashed: 40.8 miles per hour
- Collided: 39.3 miles per hour
- Bumped: 38.1 miles per hour
- Hit: 34.0 miles per hour
- Contacted: 31.8 miles per hour
The experiment then went a step further. The participants were asked if they remembered broken glass in the video. There actually was no broken glass, but the participants with the 'smashed' question were twice as likely to remember seeing it.
I was floored when I read this. Changing one word in a question can have a powerful impact on what people believe.
Once you understand this concept, you start to see it everywhere. Right now, the big news topic is Ebola. But what phrases are used around it? Those phrases change your view of Ebola, regardless of the actual statistics and facts. Is it possible that the individuals using those phrases are intentionally taking advantage of this effect?
Of course, it's much harder to notice this when what you're reading or hearing agrees with your own stance on the matter. But that's Confirmation Bias and another topic entirely.
The point is, words have connotations. Those connotations make an impact on what we believe. Remember that the next time you watch Fox News.