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Susan Smalley, Ph.D. Headshot

The Power Of Words

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"Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me." I remember saying those words when young to try and convince myself of its truth in the face of painful words thrown my way. Unfortunately, it is far from true. Verbal insults, verbal abuse, and the power of words to affect your emotions and actions are well demonstrated in science. For example, scientists have found that just hearing sentences about elderly people led research subjects to walk more slowly. In other research, individuals read words of 'loving kindness' showed increases in self-compassion, improved mood, and reduced anxiety.

But words are not attended to equally by all. Studies reveal that we place our attention toward words differently depending on our own biological or personality traits. For example, individuals with eating disorders pay greater attention to words reflecting body parts or body image than others, and in other experiments 'taboo' words require more time to reach conscious awareness than words lacking taboo connotations. I notice among my own blogs, those with titles including words like "God" or "abortion" receive many more responses than less emotionally charged words.

As scientists uncover the power of words to effect behavioral change, the power of rhetoric has become a topic of the current election. Clearly we are all attending more to the power of words. I see the impact of words I choose on the world around me and my own biases, prejudices, and selective attention in the words I hear. Yesterday, my son detected an unknown prejudice when I was talking on the phone with an auto broker to ship a car from Michigan to LA. The broker's voice, likely of a different racial/ethnic group than mine and speaking with some slang and grammatical errors led me to quickly project an image of a man who might not be so legitimate in business. I dislike that I subconsciously had such a prejudicial view based on the words he used but I realized that biases run deep and likely reflect my 52 years of living (raised in the 50s and living before and after the civil and women's rights' movements). I was happy to see my son (age 22) free of such conditioning, capable of easily detecting it and possessing the courage to point it out to me.

It's hard to look prejudice in the face - especially in yourself - and particularly in a cultural climate of intolerance for weakness or error of any sort. This is clear by the media frenzy -- a shark attack of sorts -- on Hillary Clinton recently for her comment regarding Dr. Martin Luther King. Again, the words and their intent meant different things to different people. But recognition and heightened sensitivity, while important, need to be met by kindness and forgiveness, not self-righteous indignation. Barack Obama demonstrated the type of kindness needed when he acknowledged the commitment both Clintons have made to civil rights and urged the community to move beyond the 'word' controversy.

I once read that a word is like a living organism, capable of growing, changing, spreading, and influencing the world in many ways, directly and indirectly through others. I never thought about a word being 'alive' but then I thought of words spoken 3,000 years ago, written down and passed through many generations, and they seem quite alive when read or spoken today, having lived 3,000 years. As I ponder the power of the word to incite and divide, to calm and connect, or to create and effect change, I am ever more cautious in what I say and how I listen to the words around me.

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