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The Power of Words

The Rev. Daniel R. Heischman, D.D.
August 28, 2012
WordsIn a recent study to investigate the impact that certain words can have over peoples’ actions, each person in two control groups was given $10. In both groups, each person was told that he or she could share their modest wealth with a stranger, if they chose to, or they were free to share none of it. In both cases and with either decision, their identity would be fully protected.

In the first group, where nothing else was said to the participants, it turned out that the average gift per person to a stranger was $1.84. In the second group, following the news of the $10 gift, each individual was asked to unscramble a sentence that contained words like, “divine,” “spirit,” and “sacred.”

The second group ended up giving away, on an average, $4.22 per person! What’s more, the majority of the people in the group actually gave away more than $5.

In the words of the author of the article reporting these findings, “A heavenly reminder seemed to make subjects more magnanimous.”

Similarly, in a recent Wall Street Journal article, Dan Ariely of Duke University addressed the issue of why people lie, as well as what pushes us toward remaining or being honest. He found from his studies that the simple act of being reminded of existing moral codes has an impact on how we view human behavior. In experiments he conducted, one control group was reminded before they had the opportunity to cheat (without recrimination) of the Ten Commandments; in another situation a control group was reminded of various school honor codes. Even a group of self-declared atheists was reminded of biblical exhortations toward moral behavior before they had the cheating opportunity. In all of these situations, where reminders were given of moral traditions, there was significantly less cheating.

Ariely does not claim that the reminders will have a sweeping counter-effect on the urge to cheat, but he did feel they might have a very positive impact on those who either might be on the verge of cheating or may describe their behavior as “cheating just a little.”

What these two studies may point to is the power of words, often repeated, and the formative influence they can have in the decisions we make as human beings. No doubt the people assembled in that second group, in the first study, had a wide variety of beliefs and non-beliefs, very much like the average assembled student body, faculty, and staff in one of our school chapels. Yet the invocation of such words and images, regardless of one’s beliefs, may well have had not so much a guilt-inducing effect as a heightening effect. People were reminded of the presence of larger ideas, loftier goals, and the possibility that our actions in some way mean something on a level transcending our own particular place and time. 

We live increasingly isolated lives, be they lived at greater distance from the direct contact of other human beings, or the fact that we can get away with being more anonymous today than ever before. How easy it is to assume that what we do, at any level, is really not seen by others nor matters in any way to others, let alone to the larger moral framework of the world.

The regular repetition of words such as “God,” “love,” “Jesus,” and even “belief,” in our daily life in a school community, may be having a quiet, cumulative impact we might not easily realize. Words such as these are brought into the daily conversation of a school community, and in subtle ways make every member of that community aware of the larger dimensions of their moral choices and actions. For those who have an ever-expanding opportunity to make moral compromises, hearing these words may indeed make a difference.

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