CHAMPAIGN, lll. - Researchers report that study subjects sometimes read meaning into the words "nice" and "act," in ways that can influence the subjects' willingness to cooperate with others on simple tasks.
In a series of experiments, those who first read the word "act" immediately followed by the word "nice" were more likely to engage in cooperative behaviors than those who were presented with the words in the opposite order of "nice" followed by "act." Their behavior was similar to that of participants who were explicitly told that they should "try to be nice," or "had been nice" or "had been sufficiently nice," the researchers report. The new findings, from researchers at the University of Illinois, the University of Southern Mississippi and the University of Florida, appear in the May 2011 issue of the journal Social Psychology and Personality Science.
"These findings model how intentions are formed from words that appear in consciousness in a haphazard way," says U. of I. psychology professor Dolores Albarracín, who led the study. "We are used to thinking that verbal thought is more controlled but people form propositions in a fairly automatic way and these propositions influence behavior. Word order ends up being an important organizer in how intentions are shaped out of random material."
"Given that 'act' can be either a noun or a verb, and 'nice' either an adjective or an implicit adverb ('nicely'), the orderof these words should influence behavior if the thinker automatically imposes an order-based syntactic rule on the word pairs," the authors wrote.
"We end up forming intentions based on what looks like reading the haphazard words that come to mind, even though these words have been implanted by the researcher," Albarracín said. "Cooperation and aggressive behavior can emerge from similar combinations of words that appear in a given environment."