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What Do Words Really Mean?

After Obama's State of the Union speech, in which he emphasized jobs, it's interesting to reflect on how the choice of words affects politics. It turns out that the various terms used to describe the very same proposals and policies can influence whether or not voters support them in the future. But some wordless emotional expressions are the same in EVERY culture!

We all saw this in the last election, when candidate Obama's suggestion that elderly people make out a "living will" in order to qualify for national health insurance (something many of them have already done voluntarily) was described by candidate Sarah Palin as the creation of "Death Panels."

Economists and climate scientists agree that a carbon tax would be the most effective means through which the US could lower carbon emissions and pay for alternative energy production. However, politicians are reluctant to propose a carbon tax because taxes tend to be unpopular with constituents, especially with Republican voters. But does word choice, such as "offset" versus "tax," really make a difference?

Psychologists David J. Hardisty, Eric J. Johnson and Elke U. Weber wanted to see how the way in which a concept is framed (that is, how it is labeled) affects our attitude towards it. They got volunteers (who self-identified as Democrats, Republicans, or Independents) to read about a program that would increase the cost of certain carbon-producing activities but would use the proceeds to fund alternative energies or carbon capture and sequestration. For half the volunteers this surcharge was labeled as a "carbon offset," while for the other half it was labeled as a "carbon tax," yet the details of the program were the same in each case. Participants then had to choose between two identical items (such as airline tickets), where one cost more because it included the surcharge. Volunteers were asked to write down their thoughts about the decision, make a choice, and also indicate whether they would support legislation making the surcharge mandatory for all products of that type.

As expected, Republican volunteers had an immediate, negative reaction to the "tax" option, which made them think about advantages of the cheaper item, which they ultimately chose. However, in the "offset" condition, Republicans listed supportive thoughts towards the surcharge, increasing the likelihood of the more expensive item being selected. The authors suggest that "policymakers (and those who advise them) would be wise to note the differential impact that policy labels may have on different groups. What might seem like a trivial semantic difference to one person can have a large impact on someone else."

But you don't need to use words to get your point across: just growl or yelp. No matter what your cultural background, if you sob, scream or growl, others are likely to know what you mean. And the sounds you may make when you're in danger or upset are more universally understandable than those you express you're feeling good.

In LiveScience.com, Rachael Rettner quotes researcher Disa Sauter as saying that this "seems to suggest that maybe positive signals are something that we learn from those around us as we grow up, whereas the negative emotions seem to be something that's possibly more biologically determined." Positive emotions "are thought to strengthen social bonds, and that might be something that you want to primarily do with the people of your own group."

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Art credit: Dreamstime.com

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