Facts So Romantic

How Language Helps Erase the Tragedy of Millions of Road Deaths

Photograph by Guto Araki / Flickr

In the first decades of the 20th century, people around the world began succumbing to an entirely new cause of mortality. These new deaths, due to the dangers of the automobile, soon became accepted as a lamentable but normal part of modern life. A hundred years later, with 1.25 million people worldwide (about 30,000 in the U.S.) being killed every year in road crashes, there’s now an effort to reject the perception that these deaths are normal or acceptable.

As reported in a recent New York Times article, a growing number of safety advocates, government officials, and journalists are moving away from the phrase “car accident” on the grounds that it presumes that the drivers involved are blameless—a presumption that is correct only 6 percent of the time, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Transportation. The vast majority of such incidents are caused by drivers who make mistakes, take risks, or drive while distracted or impaired. 

This linguistic shift is propelled by passionate advocates like Jeff Larason, who runs a blog and Twitter account called Drop the “A” Word, and Mark Rosekind, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, who explained at a recent conference on driver safety why his agency shuns that particular word: “When you use the word ‘accident,’ it’s like God made it happen.”

These advocates believe that by changing the language we hear and use, they can shift how we think about the causes of car crashes—and, they hope, the choices we make as drivers. Their faith in the persuasive power of word choice puts them in the company of people like George Orwell, whose dystopian society in his novel 1984 used language as a tool of mind control, and Republican strategist Frank Luntz, who bragged about the successes of his political wordsmithing (Don’t say “drilling for oil,” say “energy exploration”) in his 2008 book Words That Work. But just how much evidence is there for the notion that attitudes and behavior can be shaped by careful phrasing?

A lot, it turns out. For example, research conducted back in 1974 showed that wording can affect how people report and remember traffic acci—uh, collisions. Elizabeth Loftus and John Palmer, psychologists at the University of Washington, showed participants movies of traffic incidents and then asked them to estimate how fast the cars were going when they smashed into each other. People who heard this version of the question, in which the verb smashed was used rather than hit, gave higher speed estimates: an average of 40 miles per hour versus 34. A week later, they were more likely to say that they remembered seeing broken glass even though there was none in the film.

Opponents of the phrase “car accident” argue that language is intertwined with accountability. They can point to supporting evidence in a new study published by Laura Niemi and Liane Young, psychologists at Harvard and Boston College, respectively, showing that subtle changes in syntax can tilt the apportioning of blame to victims of sexual assault. People read descriptions of assaults in which the structure of most of the sentences placed focus on either the victim or the perpetrator (She goes with Jeff when he says, “Come up to my place for a while versus Jeff says, “Come up to my place for a while,” and she goes with him.) Those who read accounts focusing on the victim rated the victim’s responsibility as slightly higher and the perpetrator’s use of force as slightly lower than those whose descriptions focused on the perpetrator.

Knowledge of persuasive intent—whether this knowledge is implicit or overt—appears to be an essential ingredient in the mind’s ability to resist outside influence.

These studies are just two from among a bulging collection demonstrating the effects—albeit often subtle ones—of linguistic tinkering on thoughts and actions. But showing that changes in wording can often change attitudes and behavior doesn’t mean that a particular one will. A well-intentioned campaign to change language may prove to be ineffective or can even backfire—as was the case when Mahatma Gandhi tried to popularize the use of the term Harijan (“Children of God”) to refer to India’s “Untouchable” caste. Today, Gandhi’s term is deemed to be offensively condescending. And many attempts to rid the English language of gender bias—for example, saying person-hole cover instead of manhole cover—have been met with widespread derision or annoyance.

When a linguistic shift is too heavy-handed, too obviously driven by an agenda to change hearts and minds, it can run up against a response known as reactance. Reactance is our mind’s instinctive defense against the attempts of others to control our thoughts and behavior. It is more active in some people than in others, but for all of us, sensing someone’s intent to persuade can be like the body’s detection of an invading organism, triggering a counterattack that turns us against the attempted persuasion.

Reactance can be sparked even without our conscious awareness. A 2011 study led by Juliano Laran, who studies the psychology of marketing at the University of Miami, found that when people saw luxury-brand logos (for example, Nordstrom’s), they were primed to think about spending more money than when they saw budget-brand logos (such as Walmart’s). But exposure to slogans—which most people recognize as being loaded with persuasive intent—led to exactly the opposite effect, with people planning to spend less when exposed to slogans associated with luxury brands. The authors argued that the reverse-priming effect hinged on detecting the persuasive force of slogans; asking people to judge the creativity of the slogans, thereby shifting their attention away from their persuasive nature, had a disarming effect, with luxury-brand slogans now eliciting the expected response, to spend more money. Even the word that preceded phrases like “Always try to impress” or “Don’t waste your money” affected the responses. If researchers quickly flashed the word slogan, subjects did exactly the opposite of what they were being exhorted to do; if researchers instead used sentence, subjects tended to heed the message.

Knowledge of persuasive intent—whether this knowledge is implicit or overt—appears to be an essential ingredient in the mind’s ability to resist outside influence. And this is why campaigns such as Drop the A-word may carry within themselves the seeds of their own destruction. Marieke Fransen, who has conducted extensive research on resistance to persuasion, says that most people are unlikely to pick up on the persuasive import of very subtle shifts in wording, such as the difference between “car accident” and “collision,” unless these are pointed out. And indeed, I only noticed that the traffic updates I tune my car radio to was avoiding the word “accident” after I became aware of the campaign opposing its use. 

The fact that these linguistic shifts can fly under our radar may be precisely what gives them their power. And paradoxically, the more successful an advocacy campaign is in raising our consciousness about the use of language, the more it may enable us to resist being persuaded.


Julie Sedivy has taught linguistics and psychology at Brown University and the University of Calgary. She is the co-author of Sold on Language: How Advertisers Talk to You and What This Says About You and more recently, the author of Language in Mind: An Introduction to Psycholinguistics. Follow her on Twitter @soldonlanguage.

The lead image is courtesy of Guto Araki via Flickr.


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