Can word choice unconsciously reveal your state of mind?
May 26, 2010 6:22 AM   Subscribe

Outside of Freudian slips, is there any scientific evidence that people's word choices unconsciously reveal states of mind that they are trying to conceal?

We all know what Freudian slips are: a guy takes his date to dinner in a hotel restaurant, and he means to ask for "a table for tonight", but instead he accidentally asks for "a bed for tonight", thereby revealing the goal he wished to conceal.

That's not what I'm talking about. What I am talking about is vocabulary choice as a "tell" or a form of leakage.

For example, say I am angry with my friend Ann, and this is at the back of my mind while I am at work having a meeting with Betty with whom I am not angry. I say to Betty, "I like the look of this software but I haven't used it in anger yet," - would that be coincidental or would my anger have influenced me to use the phrase "in anger" instead of some other phrase?

For another example, say I missed lunch because I was delayed en route to a job interview. Does this increase the likelihood that I'll express my eagerness by telling the interviewer that I'm "hungry for experience" in this particular field?

A very sad example: the mother of a decades-missing woman claimed she had come to terms with not finding a body, but regarding other aspects of the investigation, spoke of "digging through the files" and "uncovering evidence" and so on. Perhaps she wasn't longing to find a body, but ISTM her choice of words suggested that that was what was on her mind at that point even though she was ostensibly talking about something else.

Can anyone point me to studies that provide evidence for or against this?
posted by tel3path to Writing & Language (10 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Psychology today (take with a grain of salt) reflects this concept in several case studies in this blog post.
posted by misha at 6:44 AM on May 26, 2010

I have no answer to offer, but I will say yours is certainly an interesting question. I'll be watching to see what the hive brings. And in my humble opinion, yes, word choice reveals much.
posted by emhutchinson at 6:45 AM on May 26, 2010

Best answer: I think a lot of that can be explained by priming - so not necessarily "here are all of my secrets" but moreso "I'm being influenced by things I've experienced recently"
posted by soma lkzx at 6:56 AM on May 26, 2010

Derren Brown does (or claims to do) something similar where he slips words into instructions to influence people's thoughts. Here's a clip with him and Simon Pegg - no spoilers, but if you watch through to the explanation you'll see how it is relevant to this question.
posted by Gortuk at 7:17 AM on May 26, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks MeFites, really interesting so far - keep it coming!

Gortuk, that clip is blocked in this country - any chance you could summarize?
posted by tel3path at 7:36 AM on May 26, 2010

Best answer: This is a component of a certain school of mentalism-the general idea is that you say certain words to influence your target’s answers, and in return listen to a few verbal tells that will reveal what the target is thinking.

Even mentalists are split on whether or not this actually works, so I'd take it with a grain of salt.

Have emailed boyfriend to see if he’s willing to give more information or resources-it’s more his area of interest than mine.
posted by dinty_moore at 7:41 AM on May 26, 2010

Best answer: I don't have time to dig up links (getting on a plane), but yes, there are LOTS of linguistic priming experiments, metaphor experiments (showing what metaphors/concepts/words we choose based on how we feel/think/what's on our mind), and plenty of forensic linguistics cases where lexical (word) choice revealed important things/states/evidence to help solve or demonstrate something like what you're asking.

Look up 'linguistics' and 'priming' or 'metaphor' or 'forensics' in Google Scholar and start there. When you see an article that fits, go to its references and find a related article that sounds interesting as well and then search for that one. Or if you want to do an author search, I'd start with Erard*, Lakoff, Boroditsky, Bergen, Pinker, Shuy or Olsen. Happy searching!

*Michael Erard's book, "Um: Verbal Slips & Blunders" might be just what you're looking for.
posted by iamkimiam at 8:22 AM on May 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks MeFites, richly informative!
posted by tel3path at 12:59 PM on May 29, 2010

Best answer: tel3path - I see you're in the UK, so you probably have access to Derren Brown's programs through a more legitimate website (or google "derren brown simon pegg", I saw at least one .uk site in the search results).

This bit was from Trick of the Mind series 2 episode 1, aired on E4/Channel 4. I don't think I could do it justice through a summary.
posted by Gortuk at 6:19 AM on June 1, 2010

Response by poster: Gortuk, how fantastic. Of course it's telly so who knows if that was the truth and the whole truth, but I lol'd.
posted by tel3path at 3:27 PM on June 2, 2010

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