Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Words Have Power

Words have power. Choose them wisely.

Words cannot change reality, but they can change how people perceive reality. Words create filters through which people view the world around them. A single word can make the difference between liking a person and disliking that person. If a friend describes the person you are about to meet for the first time as untrustworthy, you will be predisposed to view that person as untrustworthy, regardless of the person's actual level of trustworthiness. The single word "untrustworthy" creates a filter, or primacy effect, that predisposes you to view the person you are about to meet as untrustworthy. Thereafter, you will tend to view everything that person says or does as untrustworthy.

Overcoming negative primacy is difficult but not impossible. The more times you meet the "untrustworthy" person and do not experience instances of untrustworthiness, the more likely you are to view the "untrustworthy" person as trustworthy, thus overriding negative primacy. However, you are less likely to meet an untrustworthy person a second time because you perceive that person as untrustworthy, thereby reducing the probability of overcoming negative primacy.

Conversely, if before meeting a person for the first time, a friend tells you that the person you are about to meet is friendly, then you will likely view that person as friendly, regardless of the person's degree of friendliness. If you meet the "friendly" person several times and do not experience friendliness, then you will tend to excuse away the unfriendly behavior. Such excuses might include: "He must be having a bad day," "I must have caught her at a bad time," or, "Everybody has a bad day once in a while." An unfriendly person initially described as friendly gains an advantage from positive primacy because people tend to allow the unfriendly person multiple opportunities to demonstrate friendliness despite numerous displays of unfriendly behavior.

In today's busy world, people typically do not consult multiple news sources to get a balanced view of world events; therefore, people tend to perceive world events through the filter created by a single newspaper, television newscast, or radio report. Media has the power to influence the way in which people view world events. If a media outlet, especially a reputable one, introduces a bias into the news story, the readers or listeners will tend to view the event through the biased filter established by the media report. The filter created by the biased news report will remain in place until the readers are exposed to other more balanced news reports; however, this is unlikely to occur because people generally do not consult multiple news sources.

I took advantage of the primacy effect at an early age. I was infatuated with Paula. She was the second prettiest girl I had seen since I crossed the threshold of puberty. I wanted to spend time with her. I devised a plan to meet her without subjecting myself to social humiliation. Beth was Paula's closest friend. I knew if I told Beth that I thought Paula was cute, had a good sense of humor, and that I wanted to take her out on a date, the message would be conveyed to Paula in a matter of minutes. I knew Paula would be faced with two options. If she was predisposed to like me then the next time she saw me, she would have a favorable opinion of me because she would see me as a person who liked her. If she did not like me, then she would avoid me at all cost because she would know my intentions to ask her out on a date. The next day at school, I saw Paula walking down the hallway. Our eyes met. She smiled. I had my answer. The primacy effect predisposed her to like me before I spoke my first word to her.

In my early days as an investigator, I fell victim to the primacy effect. I interviewed a suspect who I thought kidnapped a 4-year-old girl. Before talking to the suspect, I had already made up my mind that he was the kidnapper. Consequently, everything the suspect said or did, I viewed as indications of guilt, despite ample evidence to the contrary. The more pressure I put on the suspect, the more nervous he became not because he was guilty but because I did not believe him and he thought he would go to prison for something he did not do. The more nervous the suspect became, the more I thought he kidnapped the young girl and the more pressure I applied. Needless to say, the interview spiraled out of control. In the end, I was embarrassed when the real kidnapper was caught. I suspect that negative primacy is at the root of many false confessions.

If the word "interrogation" were used instead of the word "interview," the likelihood increases that investigators would assume that the person being questioned is guilty. Interviewers view interrogations as adversarial and, at some point prior to interrogations, they either consciously or unconsciously form the opinion that the interviewee is guilty to some degree. If this were not the case, then the interviewers would be conducting interviews, not interrogations.

The interview/interrogation paradigm creates two negative primacy filters. The first negative primacy filter is that the interrogation will be confrontational. If interviewers go into the interrogation with the preconceived notion that the suspect will be confrontational, then the interrogation will likely become confrontational because the interviewers will tend to interpret anything the suspect says or does through the filter of confrontation. Interviewers begin interrogations with a heightened sensitivity to confrontation; therefore, the slightest provocation by the suspect triggers responses that are more aggressive because interviewers anticipate confrontations. The same actions that interviewers perceive as aggressive during interrogations would probably be judged as less aggressive or neutral during interviews because interviewers perceive interviews as non-confrontational. The second negative filter is that interviewers will likely view the interviewees as guilty before the interrogations commence and perceive everything the interviewees say or do as support of their guilt and discount or excuse away any evidence that does not support their preconceived notion of guilt.

An alternative approach to the interview/interrogation paradigm places the inquiry process on a resistance continuum. At one end of the continuum, interviewees offer information without resistance. At the other end, interviewees are reluctant to provide information or fall silent. This concept allows investigators to glide back and forth along the resistance continuum using a succession of specialized interviewing techniques to overcome varying degrees of resistance. Interviewers need only focus on the appropriate selection of interviewing techniques to overcome resist¬ance from witnesses and suspects alike. As the interviewee's resistance increases or decreases, the interviewer adjusts the intensity of the inquiry by selecting the suitable interviewing technique to overcome the interviewee's resistance.

One way to minimize the primacy effect is to develop competing hypotheses. Developing competing hypotheses reduces the primacy effect. A competing hypothesis is an educated guess that supposes a different outcome based on the same or similar set of circumstances. For example, when I speak to someone my initial hypothesis is that the person is telling the truth. A competing hypothesis posits the person is lying. During the conversation, I seek evidence to support the initial hypothesis or the competing hypothesis. Rarely does all the evidence support the initial hypothesis or the competing hypothesis because honest people often say and do things that make them look dishonest and, conversely, dishonest people often say and do things that make them look honest. In the end, however, the weight of the evidence should support one hypothesis over the other.

The next time you conduct an interview, meet a new colleague or buy a new product think about how you came to form your opinion about that person or product. Chances are high that your opinions were formed by primacy. New employees can enhance or hurt their career opportunities depending on the first impressions they make on their employers or coworkers. The acceptance of employees who transfer from one office to another office often depends on the reputation that precedes their arrival. The new brand of toothpaste you bought has to be good because 3 out of 4 dentists recommend that particular brand. Words have power. Choose them wisely.

More from Jack Schafer Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today