How Word Choice Impacts Decision Making: Eyes Wide Open by Noreena Hertz

Decisions are the lifeblood of every individual and organization. In a previous post I discussed three books that I’ve found particularly valuable in helping our decision making. I recently came across another, Eyes Wide Open: How to Make Smart Decisions in a Confusing World by Noreena Hertz. Eyes-Wide-Open-Cover

It’s too early to give my full assessment of the book, but I want to share some of Hertz’s insightful examples of how language and word choice can subconsciously and significantly impact our decisions. Aside from the interest these snippets might hold for students of behavioral psychology, they are extremely valuable to content producers and wordsmiths of all types, especially content marketers whose mission is to help clients increase their conversion rates.

The book’s overarching argument is that whether we know it or not, we are constantly besieged by stimuli that work their subconscious powers on us and move us into making decisions that we might not consider if we thought about them more “rationally.” Madison Avenue has always exploited the power of language and imagery, that’s not new. But particularly in this day and age where “content is king,” it’s good to be reminded of powerful influences that simple word choices can have on the customer decision journey.

As an extreme instance of this, Hertz recounts the 1956 anthropological study “Body Ritual among the Nacirema” that was published in the journal American Anthropologist. The study recounted seemingly bizarre rituals this previously unknown tribe, the “Nacirema,” had with respect to their body. They fundamentally believed that the body was ugly and prone to decay, so they religiously performed many rituals to reverse that process:

  • Men lacerated their faces daily with sharp instruments
  • Women paid others to bake their heads in small ovens
  • They procured magical potions and charms to stave off decay
  • Women with breasts too big mutilated them to make them smaller, and women with breasts too small mutilated them to make them bigger

The article turned out to be a spoof. “Nacirema” is “American” spelled backward. And if you hadn’t caught on to the ruse by now, return to the list and see that it fairly describes what many Americans do on a regular basis: shave, go to the salon, take supplements (Viagra anyone?), and have plastic surgery.

The ruse worked because of that single wordplay. Readers categorized the tribe being described as “exotic” by the mere fact of its name, “Nacirema,” along with its publication context (an esteemed academic journal), so of course readers viewed the rituals as bizarre and not pertaining to themselves.

In a similar vein, consider one of my favorite examples of this subconscious process. (This example is not in Eyes Wide Open.) The following warning created by a junior-high chemistry student in 1997 continues to pop up in emails and tweets today:

  • Dihydrogen monoxide is colorless, odorless, tasteless, and kills uncounted thousands of people every year. Most of these deaths are caused by accidental inhalation of DHMO, but the dangers of dihydrogen monoxide do not end there. Prolonged exposure to its solid form causes severe tissue damage. Symptoms of DHMO ingestion can include excessive sweating and urination, and possibly a bloated feeling, nausea, vomiting and body electrolyte imbalance. For those who have become dependent, DHMO withdrawal means certain death.

Substitute the phrase “dihydrogen monoxide” with its more common word “water” and you can see through this ruse in a heartbeat. But again, our brains immediately categorize “dihydrogen monoxide” as a “chemical” with its connotations of deadly compounds such as DDT, Agent Orange, cyanide and so on. So we let the ruse play itself out.

Hertz also refers to several studies, such as two blind taste tests in which “Succulent Italian Seafood Filet” rated higher than “Seafood Filet” and “Tender Grilled Chicken” rated higher than “Grilled Chicken,” even though there were no differences in the dishes being tasted.

How numbers are processed can also have a similar effect on us. Hertz describes a study in which two groups of forensic scientists and psychiatrists were asked to make recommendations on the discharge of a patient at a high-security mental health facility. The first group was told that “twenty out of every hundred patients” similar to the patient being considered for discharge were estimated to commit an act of violence against others. The second group was told that similar patients had a “20 percent chance” of being violent with others.

The group that was given the ratio in relative terms (“twenty out of every hundred”) was twice as likely to recommend against a discharge as the group who was given the information in percentages (“20 percent chance”), even though the chance of violent acts were identical. This study was particularly stunning in light of the fact that the participants were experts whom we’d expect to be more rational in their decision making.

I’ll have more to say about this book as I make my way through it. But in the meantime, take heed on word choices. At any point of conversion, a wrong word can wreak havoc on your sales.

Mark White is president and a founding member of content26. Continue this conversation with him on Twitter @mwhitec26.