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Imagine that you and a friend witness a robbery. The police ask you to describe the perpetrator’s face as carefully as you can, but they don’t interview your friend. The next day, the police show both of you photographs of faces and ask you to identify the one you saw. Well, it turns out that because you described the face in words, you will be less accurate than your friend at correctly identifying the face. This is because you effectively rewrote the original experience in your own mind, while your friend, who didn’t talk about the experience, was left with their visual impression intact.
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This overshadowing is happening every time we hear, see, or read something described in words. The reality being described is reshaped by language, and our mind now holds the reshaped version, not the reality. Because language is a constant presence, we t...
This effect has been demonstrated in experiments where people will assign different degrees of blame depending on differences in wording. Imagine an insurance case about a fire in a restaurant, which was caused by someone bumping a table and a candle toppled over. If you use ...
Effects like these are a goldmine for lawyers, but they are a minefield for judges, scientists, and anyone else who just wants to know what is true. The problem is that language never presents things as they really are.
This can have ethical implications. When the animal sc...
Language is the road map of a culture. It tells you where its people come from and where they are going.
For example, two young kids are playing with blocks, and the structure they’re building crashes down. When an adult admonishes them, one kid says, “She poked it!” The other says, “I tapped it!” We could argue as to whether poke or tap was a more accurate description of the event, but the ...
For example, one image was a hybrid between a crescent moon and the letter C. When the people who saw the label “crescent moon” were later asked to draw the image as accurately as they could from memory, they would draw something more like a crescent moon than the original. Those who saw...
The more we learn about the power of human language—the degree to which it shapes our world and our thoughts with us hardly being aware—the more language demands respect and humility. A single language gives almost endless options for describing a situation in words. But each language is ...
To build new knowledge about reality, and share that knowledge, we need words. But words are anything but objective. Different ways of framing a situation can nudge our thought processes in very different directions.
The literary critic Harold Bloom once said that the reason we read is that we can’t know enough people. Echoing this, the linguist Nick Evans wrote that the reason we learn other languages is that we can’t live enough lives.
In a psychology study from the early 1930s, people were shown simple line drawings, and their task was to remember what they saw. Later, they were asked to draw the images from memory. The trick was that these drawings were ambiguous, and the experimenters put different labels on the dra...
Language has immense power. It directs our attention, it engages our emotions, and it messes with our memory and reasoning. In short, we’re putty in the hands of language.
Like all things of power, language can used for good or ill. The ill in language is destructiv...
And experiments show that it not only affects our memories for faces, but also for accidents, colors, images, household objects, and even the tastes of different wines.
This feature of language has the advantage of ...
But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.
In the middle of his career, Gluck abandoned his research because he no longer wanted to harm the animals, and he explained that the language he had learned as a scientist made it easier for him to commit the wrongs. He offered a warning: if you have to sanitize the language to describe w...
Suppose someone tells you that 600 people are hospitalized with a mysterious illness; your task is to decide between treatment options, but the trick is that they can describe the same option using different words. If they describe an option by saying “200 out of the 600 people will be saved,” yo...
For anybody, really, in the business of persuasion: actual lawyers, politicians, advertisers, social media influencers. The phenomenon of strategic wording is second nature to all of us when it comes to defending a position—even young kids are masters at this.
This principle of strategic wording fuels news and media commentary, where the same situation is described in radically different ways by different media outlets. We are all familiar with rioting versus protesting, or terrorists versus freedom fight...
Language is the dress of thought.
To have another language, is to possess a second soul.
Language exerts hidden power, like the moon on the tides.
Language makes truth-seeking hard. Physicists have argued for more than a century as to whether it is possible to know reality, or whether we only ever deal with our descriptions of it—where these descriptions are necessarily framed in words. The physicist David Deutsch said that...
Every time you hear or read a description, you are allowing someone else to dictate your perspective on a scene. Their words direct your attention to certain aspects, and away from others. You are allowing them to frame how you understand it, and to aff...
“An idea is something that won’t work unless you do.” - Thomas A. Edison
Language for humans is like water for fish—it’s everywhere, but we hardly see it, and that creates an exploitable vulnerability.
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