In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman explored the idea that we make decisions based on the known knowns. That is, we consider only the information before us - ignoring potentially relevant factors we cannot perceive at that moment.

It’s a concept that he terms What You See Is All There Is (WYSIATI).  It’s an exciting idea for a marketer.

You can shape a consumer’s emotional reaction by carefully editing the aspect of a situation you draw a consumer’s attention to.

A classic demonstration comes from a 1988 experiment by Irwin Levin and Gary Gaeth at the University of Iowa, who examined different ways of phrasing the same fact. They served a batch of minced beef to students, sometimes telling them it was ‘75% lean’ and sometimes, ‘25% fat’.

Even though the beef in both scenarios was identical - it came from the same batch - and the information about fat/leanness levels was objectively the same, the frame affected their taste ratings.

The researchers found students preferred the mince when they were told it was ‘75% lean’. They rated the quality (+19%) and leanness (+31%) as significantly higher than that of the ‘25% fat’ mince.

From lab to real life

Framing is a technique that credit card providers have harnessed brilliantly. In many countries when credit cards first launched the banks insisted on a “no surcharge rule”. That meant retailers were forbidden from charging customers a fee for using credit cards - but they could offer a discount for cash.

While an economist might suggest the charge and discount are the same, a psychologist would recognise that they frame the situation differently. Since losses loom larger than gains, shoppers were comfortable using their cards and forgoing a discount, whereas paying a surcharge would have been too painful.

But it’s more than framing that matters. A single word can make a difference. A stark demonstration of the impact of subtle word changes can be seen in the research of Elizabeth Loftus and John Palmer at the University of Washington. They showed participants a video of a car accident and then asked them to estimate how fast the cars were travelling.

However, the question was altered by one word - the verb - between participants. Specifically, they were asked: “About how fast were the cars going when they (smashed / collided / bumped / hit / contacted) each other?”.

This single change had a significant impact on their estimations. Participants who were asked the “smashed” question thought the cars were travelling 27% faster than who were asked the “contacted” question.

Loftus and Palmer study

Those who heard “smashed” reported the highest speed estimate (40.8 mph), followed by “collided” (39.3 mph), “bumped” (38.1 mph), “hit” (34 mph) and “contacted” (31.8 mph).

The verb in the question acted like a lens that changed the way participants viewed reality.

Once again, the power of the right words to shape reality isn’t limited to the lab. A more Machiavellian motoring example dates back to 1920s America, when the proliferation of cars resulted in a growing number of pedestrian fatalities. Unsurprisingly, this resulted in public anger towards the car manufacturers.

In an attempt to swing the blame away from drivers - auto manufacturers banded together and coined a new word - “jaywalking” to describe the previously uncontentious act of crossing the road.

At the time, a “jay” was a derogatory word: an out-of-towner, an unsophisticated hick, confused by the rules of the city. So to be caught jaywalking was shaming. The word caught on, and the responsibility for deaths shifted from drivers to walkers.

So, whether you’re curating the words you use or adopting new uses to meet your needs, the message here is clear. Choose your words wisely: they have the power to change.