Guest Post: Say what? How words affect our behaviour in powerful ways

May 3, 2012

Most of us believe that we are fully aware of and in control of our behaviour, however this research suggests otherwise.

Most of us believe that we are fully aware of and in control of all aspects of our behaviour. We assume that we possess a complete understanding of our underlying motivations and think that we would not be influenced by subtle or subconscious ‘tricks’ that attempt to change our behaviour. However, an emerging line of research has built an incredible knowledge base demonstrating that these beliefs are misguided.

Goal-setting behaviour

A fascinating study that beautifully illustrates this phenomenon was conducted by psychologists John Bargh and Peter Gollwitzer, pioneers in the study of goals and goal-setting behaviour. In one of their experiments on the topic, they asked their participants to play a “resource-dilemma” game. Although many versions of this game exist, in their study, participants were engaged in a computerized simulation where they were ‘fishing’ from a communal pond. The goal of the game is to catch as many fish as possible, to maximize profits and ‘win’ the game.

However, the challenge for the players is that they can only take out so many fish before the pond is depleted. Once this occurs, everyone in the village will go hungry. Therefore, there are difficult decisions to make in terms of how many fish to catch as well as to put back for the betterment of the community.

Not surprisingly, a key concern that is shared by all players of the game is the need for cooperation, since each time one of them catches a fish, they need to decide between keeping the fish (which contributes to their own profits) or putting it back (which contributes to the sustainability of the community resources).

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What was quite interesting about the setup employed by Bargh and Gollwitzer was that, before beginning the game, the researchers had some of the participants construct sentences out of a word-jumble that included words such as helpful, support, cooperative, fair, and share while others completed word scrambles with neutral words. Bargh and Gollwitzer discovered that the simple act of reading and playing with these words beforehand had a remarkably powerful effect on the subsequent behaviour of the participants. Specifically, the participants who read/used synonyms for “cooperative” returned 25 percent more fish to the communal pond than the people who were not exposed to these words.

Perhaps even more impressive was the fact that these cooperation-primed participants returned the exact same number of fish on average as participants who were explicitly primed to act cooperatively in their instructions.

Application to a business context

This phenomenon has been replicated in numerous other studies/forums and is a stark reminder of the power of the subconscious and its ability to motivate our observable behaviour.

The benefits of priming our mindset can be applied to a business context in several ways. For example, when reflecting on how leaders or supervisors are managing their teams, how might their behaviours differ if their goal is to “check up” on the work of their subordinates versus checking in to see how they can remove barriers to enable the performance of their team? Which manager would be more likely to receive a positive reaction? Which one is most likely to exhibit signs of micromanagement?

Well-considered word choices are also crucial when engaged in difficult conversations with our colleagues and/or clients/stakeholders. How we choose to represent an issue (e.g., as opportunity or problem) in a preliminary discussion may be critically important in terms of the final outcome.

For example, when heading into a conversation that we think will likely be difficult with a colleague of ours, it will be critical to think about the tone of our internal conversations. This colleague may be concerned about certain steps we have taken and has voiced these sentiments around the office. Therefore, it is important to consider what words we are using when describing our goals and setting the tone for the meeting. Are we trying to avoid conflict with this colleague? Are we trying to find a way to strengthen our relationship so we can better understand each other’s perspective? As the above research has demonstrated, these “primers” may influence not only the opportunities/alternatives we see and contemplate in this meeting, but may also alter our behaviour toward our colleague.


The available research suggests that there is a unique opportunity for us to better engage our colleagues and our clients by priming our mindsets. Being thoughtful and strategically positioning our messages are critical elements for achieving our desired outcomes. Reflecting on how we “prime” our own behaviours, as well as our interactions with others, may yield powerful benefits that will enrich our relationships as well as our professional success.

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Craig Dowden
An engaging and inspiring coach, Craig partners with leaders and executives to work on their most important challenges. He integrates the latest findings in the science of leadership, team, and organizational excellence into his coaching and consulting work. Craig Dowden Ph.D. focuses on bridging the gap between what science knows and what business does. His firm specializes in the custom design and delivery of evidence-based leadership development programs and services.

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