According to a series of four studies published in Cognition, actions are judged more favorably when replacing a disagreeable term (e.g., killing) with a semantically related euphemistic term (e.g., neutralizing) in an act’s description. Further, the researchers found that individuals who used euphemistic language were evaluated as more moral and trustworthy than liars.
“I became interested in this topic after noticing that individuals ideologically opposed often made different linguistic choices when describing the same polarizing event,” explained study author Alexander Walker, a PhD candidate at the University of Waterloo. “For example, the same participants of a protest would often be referred to as activists by some and extremists by others. I wondered to what extent these different linguistic choices impacted peoples’ thoughts about the event described. I also wondered whether peoples’ disagreement regarding polarizing events could be explained, at least in small part, by their exposure to different linguistic framings.”
Walker and colleagues recruited a total of 1906 United States residents to partake in this research. Participants were presented with various action-depicting statements that used either a euphemistic (agreeable) or dysphemistic (disagreeable) term. For example, “Emily working at a meat processing plant” or “Emily working at a slaughterhouse”.
In Studies 1 and 2, participants provided various ratings to each statement, including their agreement with the action, how deceptive the statement is, how true it is, and whether strictly speaking the statement is a lie. In Study 3, participants provided judgments of the person sharing the statement (i.e., the speaker), including their trustworthiness, moral character, and extent to which they deserve criticism.
In Study 4, the researchers evaluated whether ambiguity around the described actions could explain the influence of euphemistic and dysphemistic terms on participants’ evaluations. As such, some participants were also presented with factual information of the events described in the statement, while others received no such additional details. Here, participants only indicated the extent to which they agreed with the statement.
“Our data suggests that actions can be made to appear more favorable by replacing a disagreeable term, such as torture, with a semantically related agreeable term, such as enhanced interrogation, in an act’s description,” Walker told PsyPost. “Additionally, we find that the less details people have about an action, the more susceptible they are to a speaker’s linguistic choices.”
“Both agreeable and disagreeable action descriptions were judged as largely honest and easily distinguishable from lies,” he explained. “Agents using these descriptions to describe a well-known action were judged as considerably more moral and trustworthy than liars. Thus, the avoidance of objectively false claims may provide the strategic user of language with plausible deniability of dishonesty, protecting them from the reputational cost associated with lying.”
“Overall, people should be aware of how the linguistic choices of others have the potential to guide their perceptions of key events and issues. Fortunately, becoming more knowledgeable about a topic does appear to reduce the influence of other peoples’ linguistic choices. Thus, one way to prevent your beliefs from being swayed by the linguistic choices of others is to become more knowledgeable about an event in question. For example, when possible, taking the time to learn the details surrounding an event may help prevent one’s opinion from being guided by the linguistic choices of a friend, politician, or journalist.”
With regard to study limitations, it is unclear what specific properties of euphemistic terms make them effective. One possibility is that euphemistic terms evoke more positive emotions (or less negative emotions) compared to their dysphemistic counterparts.
Walker also added, “our investigation into strategic language took place in somewhat artificial experimental conditions. Participants were described the actions of fictional people participating in fictional events. Distinct from many real-world instances, the actions described came from an unknown source – or speaker. Thus, participants did not have source information, such as knowledge of the potential biases and self-interest of the speaker, to help inform their judgments.”
When asked about future research questions, Walker responded, “studying the strategic and self-serving use of various euphemistic and dysphemistic terms in the real-world, such as on social media, presents a promising and important avenue for future work. For example, we may wonder whether liberals and conservatives reliably make different linguistic choices when describing the same event. Furthermore, given that people are often motivated to seek out news sources that reinforce their existing viewpoints, we may ask whether selective exposure to ideologically biased language increases polarization and furthers ideological divides.”
The study, “Controlling the narrative: Euphemistic language affects judgments of actions while avoiding perceptions of dishonesty”, was authored by Alexander C. Walker, Martin Harry Turpin, Ethan A. Meyers, Jennifer A. Stolz, Jonathan A. Fugelsang and Derek J. Koehler.