How One Word Can Change Your Beliefs

September 14, 2007  

Once again we explore the power of language. This one was given to me by Michael Wiederman, Professor of Psychology at Columbia College.

Imagine that you serve on the jury of an only-child custody case following a relatively messy divorce. The facts of the case are complicated by ambiguous economic, social, and emotional considerations. Therefore you need to base your decision entirely on the following few observations:

Parent A has an average income, average health, average working hours, a reasonable rapport with the child, and a relatively stable social life. This parent is essentially average in every way.

Parent B has an above-average income, minor health problems, lots of work-related travel, a very close relationship with the child, and an extremely active social life. This parent has both notable strengths and notable weaknesses.

Here’s the interesting part…

If the jury is asked who should get custody, most people choose Parent B.

If the jury asked who should not get custody, most people choose Parent B.

Adding one word changed people’s responses and beliefs.

When asked who should get custody, people look for the positive attributes and see that Parent B has more positive attributes than the blander Parent A.

Conversely, when asked who should not get custody, people look for the negative attributes and see that Parent B has more negative attributes. Therefore Parent A should be awarded custody.

This is an example of the psychological concept, confirmation bias.

This is important to keep in mind as we get closer to the Presidential elections. Political polls, such as the Gallop Poll, are often biased (unintentionally or other) by the wording of the surveys. Think critically before you make important decisions.

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2 Responses to “How One Word Can Change Your Beliefs”

  1. Michael Wiederman on September 15th, 2007 2:34 pm

    Good point, Steve. Confirmation bias is one reason that individuals representing both “sides” of an argument (including politics) honestly feel they have the better argument–we tend to focus on the strengths of our side and the weaknesses of the other side. As tough as it is, critical examination means forcing ourselves to look for the strengths of the “other” decision or side.

  2. Y.Graf on September 23rd, 2007 6:06 am

    I thought it would be easy but was really puzzled by the questions. I consider myself being a “safe player” but when winning stake is high, your reasoning changes in a second! Looking forward to results!