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The power of language: How words shape thoughts and emotions

Important findings about the impact of language on people's worldviews, emotions and behaviours, as well as tools and tips for journalistic work: Part 2 of the article series "Psychology for Journalists".

By Margarida Alpuim and Katja Ehrenberg

Ein Wesen hantiert mit Buchstaben


"Kind of absurd": This is how Josh Chin, a journalist at The Wall Street Journal, described the police response to protests that took place in China in late 2022, because there were "images of police sort of snatching blank pieces of paper out of people's hands" (1). Due to state censorship, Chinese citizens decided to express their indignation over the strict COVID-19 lockdown rules and other oppressive policies in an unusual way by omitting words. In the Vox podcast "Today, Explained", which featured Chin as a guest, this gesture was described as "the most powerful symbol… A symbol that says literally nothing and everything at the same time" (1).

Paul Watzlawick, the prominent therapist and communication theorist, once said: "One cannot not communicate" (2). Words convey a message through their meaning but also through the way they are presented, such as their order in a sentence or the use of a certain word instead of a similar one. Even saying nothing at all conveys meaning. But how much can one's use of language, including word choice, influence others?

In this article of our series "Psychology for Journalists", we present some important findings about how verbal language impacts people's worldviews, emotions and behaviours. We also provide practical tools to help you reflect and apply this knowledge to your everyday work.

Language around the world

  • "Each language is a way of understanding and interpreting the world", affirms Noam Chomsky, the father of modern linguistics (3).
  • Today, some 7,000 human languages exist. However, by some estimates, half of them will disappear over the next hundred years (4).
  • As Chomsky sees it, "Language carries the wealth of tradition in history, oral history ... and we are losing those treasures every time a language disappears" (3).

How does language shape the way we think and behave? Some relevant findings:

Why does language matter?

  • Language impacts everyone starting from the day they are born.
  • Words mirror how one feels and thinks.
  • The moment people say something, they are already inevitably shaping the world and even more so in the case of journalists, because they provide society with a frame of reference for interpreting reality.
  • Awareness of the power of language can make journalism better.

The relationship between language and thought has been researched for a long time. In the 1950s, a broad research program advanced the hypothesis that language influences how people think, an idea known as linguistic relativity. Some years later, another group of researchers (also backed by scientific data) claimed that it is not possible to definitively conclude that language shapes our thoughts.

Today, both perspectives are embraced by influential thinkers such as the cognitive scientist Lera Boroditsky and the cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker (to learn more about this controversy, read 5). Even though there is no absolute answer, it is acknowledged that, at least in some ways, language influences thinking.

It is therefore not surprising that language is often instrumentalised politically, for example through what is known as "framing". This refers to a framework of associations and interpretations that accompany terms. Frames often describe a situation or a problem, but they also implicitly provide a possible reaction to it. 

The German word "Flüchtlingswelle" ("wave of refugees") is one example. From 2015 onwards, it was often used to describe the refugee movements that largely emerged as a result of the escalating civil war in Syria. The term was used by various parties and media that certainly did not always have ulterior motives. However, this does not change the effect of such a term, which presumably causes many media consumers to visualise masses of people rushing in like a wave, again and again in other words, a force of nature to which one is powerlessly exposed and finds threatening. What is to be done in the face of such a "wave"? For some, the association is obvious: build dams and protective walls. 

It is important for journalists to be aware of the effect of words like this and think carefully about whether there are better terms. In this case, one option would be "refugee movements".

Emotions and language

Words and emotions seem to be interconnected in the brain. Every time we have an emotional experience, the neural regions that process the semantics of words also get involved (6).

For example, when people give words to negative emotions, they regulate their emotional state and calm themselves down. This is detectable in our brains: Reactivity in the amygdala, which plays a key role in processing emotional stimuli and reactions, decreases when someone labels negative emotional images (7). Even though scientists are not certain yet about why labelling emotions has a comforting effect, one possibility is that it reduces uncertainty (8).

The poetic advice in Shakespeare's "Macbeth" is scientifically supported after all: "Give sorrow words; The grief that does not speak whispers the o'er-fraught heart and bids it break". (In other words: If you don't put your sorrow into words, such silence is going to break your suffering heart) (9).

On the other hand, assigning words to emotional experiences can also end up crystallising meanings (10). Getting stuck in these interpretations makes it more difficult to transform them, which is particularly detrimental for negative events.

  • That's why in counselling and in therapy clients are frequently encouraged to reframe their thoughts and feelings, for example, by telling themselves, "I still need to learn how to do that" instead of "I can't do it". This strategy helps clients contemplate more empowering coping strategies without denying the difficulties.
  • A familiar example of labelling and its implications in relationships is the statement from a wife, "My husband helps me at home." When the verb "help" is used in this context, the person is telling herself (and her partner) that she's the one who should be doing the domestic work. The phrase is loaded with unbalanced assumptions about gender roles. The good news is that changing the words can contribute to (though not determine) a positive transformation in the relationship.

One note on words and our inner world: Next time you write a news piece about mental health, "be specific", the American Psychiatric Association suggests; it's preferable to say, "He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder" than "He was mentally ill" (11). When you use accurate words, you're helping people feel represented in your story and identifying the help they need. (Important note: This should not be confused with reducing people's identities to stigmatising labels. For example, it is better to talk about someone "having bipolar disorder" than saying they "are bipolar".)

Language and responsibility for actions

Grammar, such as active versus passive constructions, can also impact how events are perceived. If a British person sees someone break a vase, they'll most likely say, "X broke the vase", regardless of whether it was broken on purpose or accidentally. In other languages, one often uses a sentence as vague as, "The vase broke", unless there was clear intent involved (4); Portuguese is one such example.

  • Different grammar can lead to different ways of framing events and therefore to different consequences. As Boroditsky states in one of her studies, "Subtle differences in linguistic descriptions can change how people construe what happened, attribute blame and dole out punishment" (12).
  • Nevertheless, this example involves more than just grammar; language is also tied to cultural differences. In some cases, such as in German, it is rare to lack a subject in a phrase like the one above. However, in other languages, it's conceivable that some things happen without having someone acting upon them, which might lead to reduced cultural perceptions of accountability.

Grammar's power in event perception can also perpetuate harmful social misconceptions. In an Instagram post about the role of media in stopping rape culture, the United Nations suggests that titles like, "Woman raped at man's flat after 12 glasses of wine" be replaced by, "Man raped woman at his flat".

When framing a headline, it is important to verify whom accountability is being assigned to and consider whether there is a (mis)leading attribution of responsibility.

Grammatical gender

Assigning different grammatical genders to an object changes how we perceive it.
In German, "bridge" is a feminine word; in Spanish, it's masculine. When asked to qualify the word, German-speaking people used adjectives such as "elegant", "fragile" and "pretty", whereas Spanish-speaking people chose descriptors like "big", "strong" and "sturdy" even though the study was conducted in the English language, in which "bridge" has no grammatical gender (13). As Boroditsky notes in her text on linguistic relativity, "It appears that even a small fluke of grammar (the seemingly arbitrary assignment of a noun to be masculine or feminine) can have an effect on how people think about things in the world" (13).

To counteract the tendency toward default male dominance in language (and its consequences), Sweden officially adopted a new gender-neutral pronoun in 2015: "hen" (in Swedish, "she" is "hon" and "he" is "han").

  • Four years later, in 2019, the use of this gender-neutral pronoun seemed to have weakened "people's mental bias toward men". When asked to describe a stick figure walking a dog, individuals who used gender-neutral pronouns were "less likely to assign a male name" to the character (14).
  • Nevertheless, some people continued to be very critical of the use of "hen". Some of the arguments against the initiative mentioned in a study were: There is already a neutral word for gender ("person"); there are only two genders; these initiatives hinder freedom of speech; and people will "get stuck on the use of the word hen" and end up being distracted from the message (15).

Other studies support the idea that girls are more likely to believe they can be engineers if gender-neutral language or both the masculine and feminine forms are used (16). It thus seems that "the language use of teachers, parents or the media" can partly shape "children's gender-related stereotypes about occupations" (17).

Journalism is a particularly critical field when it comes to gender-related language decisions, as these can impact text fluency as well as cause heated audience responses toward media organisations. Being knowledgeable about how gender-related language impacts people's perceptions of reality and their actions can help journalists make more informed decisions in the newsroom.

Thinking about solutions

Changing one word in a news article can inspire different solutions.
Imagine this situation: There's a city with increasing crime rates, and decision-makers need to respond to the problem. A journalist is reporting on the topic and debating whether to use the word "beast" or "virus" as a metaphor for crime in their article. Can the word choice affect how the audience evaluates possible responses?

The answer seems to be yes. Changing that single word led to differences in the type of solution participants identified as more adequate to the situation (18). Readers supported more police enforcement when crime was described as a "beast" (71%) compared to when it was labelled a "virus" (54%). In contrast, they were more likely to propose investigating the root causes of the issue and instituting social reforms when the article used the word "virus" (18).

Even though language impacts people's emotions, thoughts and intended actions, this is not a deterministic phenomenon. Being aware of these processes doesn't provide categorical directions on how to communicate with others, but it might help one be more purposeful and constructive.

Tools and tips

How do you name it? Pay attention to the exact terms you use to describe something, because it makes a difference.

  • If people are in the streets expressing their opinion toward their government's policies, is it a "demonstration", a "movement", a "protest march", a "riot", "unrest"…? What if it is an event with young people rallying for climate awareness? Are they "students", "kids" or even "climate terrorists", as they have been called in certain countries? Think very carefully about the concrete meaning of different words and labels.
  • The same holds true for other terms or verbs: Is a company "restructuring", "downsizing" or "firing employees"?

Euphemisms sometimes hide the real meaning of events and undermine an accurate assessment of facts.

In his dystopian book 1984, George Orwell invented "Newspeak", a new language (as opposed to "Oldspeak") that eliminated certain words or constrained their meaning, making it impossible to think critically. With the novel, which was published in 1949, Orwell was pointing out that the fewer words we have to describe reality, the smaller our reality becomes (19).

Check whom you are identifying as being accountable.

  • Who is the active subject in your headline/story?
  • Which events are you focusing on?

Beware of the use of "but", "although" and other conjunctions implying contrast.

It can sometimes be misleading to use conjunctions that imply contrast to connect two ideas. The usage might convey a sense of opposition or conflict where there is only a natural coexistence of circumstances.

  • You might be devaluing the first part of the sentence: "She broke her personal record, but it wasn't enough to win the race. Consider whether the two ideas even need to go together.
  • Depending on the framing, their use might make people feel hopeless: "Although governments are developing local solutions, climate change seriously threatens populations".
  • Try inverting the sentence to open room for a way out: "Climate change seriously threatens populations, but governments are developing local solutions".

Avoid using set phrases, clichés and commonplaces. They become useless because people don't assign meaning to them anymore.

  • Look at these examples: "They face an uphill battle", "She is one in a million", "He was stabbed in the back", "This is a piece of cake for me". How would you say the same thing using your own words? Try it. You'll reach your audience more effectively.

As the aspects presented in this article have shown, language is a very powerful tool for journalists. The examples illustrate how journalists' words can affect their audiences' thoughts, emotions and attitudes. But there is another significant element that has a large impact and can sometimes be used to great effect in journalism: silence. Being quiet and listening to the people – the effects of this can also help improve journalism.


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