Have you ever wished you were a wizard? The kind that can wave his/her wand, pronounce few words and make something happen? No, this is not a trick question. Nor it is a test on your knowledge of the Harry Potter books. Although we primarily think of “magic words” as a purely fictional idea, this may not be quite true after all. In fact, the concept has been studied by psychologists and it is known as “priming.” Priming means that exposure to one stimulus (certain words, for example) can make us react in a certain way. It is no illusion.
Probably the most famous experiments was conducted by the American social psychologist John Bargh in the late 90s when he performed series of different assessments, based on the so-called “scrambled sentence tests,” where participants were primed with certain words presented randomly in sentences. The results were quite astonishing. For instance, individuals primed with “polite” words, such as “patient, cordially, graciously” later waited much longer to interrupt the experimenter and ask for further instructions than the ones primed with “rude” words, such as “aggressively, bold, disturb”- 558s vs 326s! Additionally, individuals primed with “elderly” words, such as “Florida, retired, lonely, bingo” started walking slower afterwards compared to the ones that were not primed. Similar experiments were done by other researchers with different words and even pictures, and the results do support the idea that our behavior can be influenced by what we hear, read or see—a notion that, for many of us, still exists only in the fantasy world.
As it can be expected, priming is an exciting concept for marketers and sellers around the world. It simply means that we can be conditioned to elicit expected responses when exposed to certain words or images. Further studies have shown that this influence is largely sub-conscious. That is—we are often not even aware why we act the way we do, or make the decisions and choices we do. Although we may think it is our own decision, scientists tell us otherwise—that there may be a deeper reason why we choose one product or brand over another. And that “free will” may not be that free after all. This idea is related to another concept in psychology—a practice so scary that it was actually forbidden in most European and North American countries. It is known as “subliminal advertising” and is probably one of the most controversial topics in psychology. Subliminal means “below the threshold” and describes messages that our minds catch without us being aware— we are exposed for only less than a second. For instance, a highly quoted and criticized experiment conducted in 1957 by the marketer James Vicary showed that when words, such as “eat popcorn” and “drink Coca-Cola” were inserted for splits of a second in a movie, the consumption of these products increased. The tests were later proven to be fabricated but the idea, although very debated, continues to fascinate researchers. In fact, some studies claim that subliminal messages may work after all—to a degree. For instance, some positive connection has been shown to exist with self-help tapes where people believed that their self-esteem and memory have improved after listening to motivational messages. Product placements in movies and TV shows is another example of subliminal advertising linked to some positive outcomes. So far, though, the concept has more of a theoretical value than being a real ground-breaking phenomenon.
There may more reality in the fiction than we let ourselves to believe, though. Aside from priming, scientists consider that certain words do have “magical” effect on people and may be used to elicit a desired response or an action. Market research specialists and neuroscientists have long been exploring this concept in order to show that “power words” are real. For example, it is no secret that some linguistic “tricks” can have influential effect, such as tone of voice, stressing certain words in a sentence or repeating words. Furthermore, several marketing studies claim to have found the true most powerful words in the world. With slight variations, it appears the general consensus is that words, such as “you,” “safety,” “guarantee,” “free,” “new,” “instantly,” “easy” are quite influential. Furthermore, research (by the neurotheologist Andrew Newberg and Prof. Mark Waldman) claims that the “most dangerous word in the world” is…”No.” Their study has shown that by only seeing the word, our brains release multiple stress hormones. This, in turn, leads to negative consequences, such as decrease in our mood levels, logical thinking and communication abilities. In fact, the same holds true of all negative words. Negative thinking in general, or the use of words, such as “death,” ”illness” and “poverty” can have a profound negative mental and physical effect on us. The solution?— Quite simple. Start thinking in positive terms. Positive beliefs influence our brains in a different way—one that can lead to long-lasting happiness, wellbeing and confidence. A small shift in the way we view the world may help break the spell of our “bad luck” and make us feel as anything is possible.
In the end, science tells us that not all words are equal. Some are more “special” than others, more powerful and dominant. That using them often can help us get into the minds of opponents and possibly influence their responses or actions. If used properly, such knowledge can help us advance in our careers, become more persuasive and win over people by just using few skillfully used phrases. More importantly, though, positive self-talk will allow us gain control over our lives again.
And finally, the reason why using power words also matters to many of us is that this may as well be as close as we can get to true magic and wizard craft in the real world. And who doesn’t like magic after all?