When people tell us about events, they often focus on the who, the what, and the how of what happened. For example, a friend might tell us about a date she had the previous weekend, and describe her date, the restaurant, and the moonlit walk. The language we use, though, contains more than just a description of the event itself. It also contains information about why those events happened. This why information is there whether we intend it to be or not.
Psychologist Terry Au has done research on the verbs people use in language. She points out that many verbs describe actions that are symmetric. That is, if one person is engaged in the action, the other person is engaged in it too. For example, if I say that
John danced with Sarah,
then both John and Sarah are dancing together.
But even though the action itself involves both people, the language is set up so that there is also information about who caused the dancing in the sentence. In this example, John is seen as causing the dancing in some way.
Why does this matter?
The way you interpret the information about causes in verbs can influence your beliefs about things as important as guilt and innocence. In a 1997 paper in Social Cognition, Gun Semin and Cristianne De Poot had people read what they were told were transcripts of an interview with a woman who was a potential rape victim.
Two versions of the interview were written. In one, the police interviewer asked many of the questions in a way that would imply that the alleged aggressor caused the events, such as:
Did Peter dance with you on that evening?
In the other, the interviewer asked the questions in a way that would imply that the alleged victim caused the events, such as:
Did you dance with Peter on that evening?
In each case, the answers to the questions were the same.
After reading the interview, participants in the study rated the likelihood that the woman was the victim of a crime. People were much more likely to believe that she was the victim of a crime when the questions were asked in a way that made it seem as though the aggressor was the cause of actions than when the questions were asked in a way that made it seem as though the victim were the cause of the actions. This is true, even though the actions themselves were identical in each version of the interview.
It is important to note that even though people in this study were strongly swayed by the way the questions were stated, nobody in the study was aware that the wording of the questions affected their beliefs about the guilt of the aggressor.
This work suggests that people are highly sensitive to the information about why events occur that is stated indirectly in language. Furthermore, we are unaware of the influence that this causal information has on what we come to believe. That means that when we are trying to determine the cause of some action, we should try describing that action to ourselves in a number of different ways to ensure that we are not allowing an unintended bias to affect our conclusions.