Persuasive Framing with Subtle Language

Persuasive framing of an issue is the cornerstone of effective influence, and language is often the main tool. People can be swayed even by very subtle framing, often one or a few words appearing in the right place can have dramatic effects. In fact, Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (a well-known theory in cognitive linguistics) says that our thinking depends on the language we use. This theory is somewhat contentious, but whatever the overarching theory holds, research on framing is abundant, and it leaves no doubt about its heavy effects.

Smoking While Praying or Praying While Smoking

Subtle change in language or even the order of words can have powerful framing effects. This is nicely illustrated by a joke about two priests who were wondering whether it was ok to smoke during the prayer. A young priest asked his bishop, “May I smoke while praying?” The answer was an emphatic “No!” Later, when he saw an older priest puffing on a cigarette while praying, the younger priest scolded him, “You shouldn’t be smoking while praying! I asked the bishop, and he said I couldn’t do it!” “That’s odd,” the old priest replied. “I asked the bishop if I may pray while I’m smoking, and he told me that it’s okay to pray any time!”

Single Word Creates Different First Impressions

In a classic study by Harold Kelley, college students read a short bio of a new substitute professor. All students heard the same lecture; all students received the bio before the lecture. The only difference between the two groups was one word in the bio.

Some students read this description:

“Mr. Blank is a graduate student in the Department of Economics and Social Science here at MIT. He has had three semesters of teaching experience in psychology at another college. This is his first semester teaching Ec. 70. He is 26 years old, a veteran, and married. People who know him consider him to be a rather cold person, industrious, critical, practical, and determined.”

Others read the same but instead of “cold person” Mr. Blank was described as a warm person.

After the lecture, the students who had read that Mr. Blank was a cold person described him as “reckless, conceited, aloof, and stubborn”. The second group described him as “adventurous, self-confident, independent, and persistent”.

Singular Power of the Verb

One of the most impressive experiments comes from Loftus and Palmer. In this experiment, subjects viewed short clip of a traffic accident. Then all subjects had to answer how fast the cars were going at the time of the accident (miles per hour), but the difference was how the experimenters asked their opinion. They all were asked the question, only using a different verb.

  1.  ‘About how fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other?’
  2.  ‘About how fast were the cars going when they collided into each other?’
  3. ‘About how fast were the cars going when they bumped into each other?’
  4. ‘About how fast were the cars going when they hit each other?
  5. ‘About how fast were the cars going when they contacted each other?’

If anything, this experiment revealed the power of verbs:

  • Contacted: 31.8
  • Hit: 34.0
  • Bumped: 38.1
  • Collided: 39.3
  • Smashed: 40.8

Do You Get Headaches Frequently?

In another experiment by Elizabeth Loftus, people were asked about their headaches.

  • Some people had to answer this question: “Do you get headaches frequently, and, if so, how often?”
  • Others answered essentially the same question with only one word changed: “Do you get headaches occasionally, and, if so, how often?”

The first group recalled that on average they had 2.2 headaches per week; the second – only 0.7


  • Kelley, H.H., “The warm-cold variable in first impressions of persons”, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 18, 431-439 (1950).
  • Loftus, E.F. & Palmer, J.C., “Reconstruction of auto-mobile destruction: An example of the interaction between language and memory”, Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behaviour, Vol. 13, 585 -589 (1974)
  • Loftus, E.F. (1975). Leading questions and the eyewitness report. Cognitive Psychology, 7, 560-572.