How to Use Language to Subtly Project Power

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Why framing the debate is such a powerful and subtle device.

Those in power tend to talk about the big picture rather than the details, a new study finds.

By the same token, if a speaker focuses on abstract concepts, this sends the message that they are a powerful person.

For example:

“…a speaker discussing a massive earthquake might either state that 120 people died and 400 were injured (a concrete statement conveying specific details), or that the earthquake is a national tragedy (an abstract statement conveying higher-level meaning).”  (Wakslak et al., 2014)

The conclusions come from six experiments published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Wakslak et al., 2014).

In one typical experiment, participants read quotations about a political event, each attributed to a different politician.

Some of quotes were expressed in concrete terms and others in abstract terms.

The politicians who used abstract language — like the example above, talking about ‘a national tragedy’ — were rated as more powerful.

The same result emerged across all the experiments conducted in different contexts:

“Use of abstract language that captured the gist or meaning of an event led a speaker to be perceived as more powerful, relative to concrete language that focused on specific details and actions, regardless of whether the speaker was discussing a person, a societal issue, or a product; describing something negative or positive; or saying a few words or several sentences.” (Wakslak et al., 2014)

The study found that two factors were important in how abstract speech conveys power:

  • Judgemental: people in power are expected to make judgements about events or to frame them in some way. Abstract language is more often used when judgements are being made.
  • Abstract thinker: people who use abstract language are more likely to be abstract thinkers, which is another signal of power.

The authors conclude:

“When people use abstract language, they communicate that they are removed from the action and able to distill the gist or essence of the situation, instead of focusing on the concrete actions that would be most salient if they were ‘on the ground.’” (Wakslak et al., 2014)

Like speaking with a deeper voice, then, using abstract language is a simple way to convey to others that you are powerful.

Image credit: Kheel Center

About the author


Dr Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and the author of PsyBlog. His latest book is "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes That Stick". You can follow PsyBlog by email, by RSS feed, on Twitter and Google+.

Published: 25 June 2014

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