The 10 Commandments: More Harm Than Good?

How Language Impacts Our Daily Lives

Posted Aug 18, 2014

I was on my way to Vegas when I saw the signs. Along the highway, there they were, one after the other: The Ten Commandments on small wooden posts. I guess they were there to remind partygoers that they shouldn't covet, commit adultery, or take the Lord's name in vain as they headed to the city of sin. I read each one, reflecting on its meaning when suddenly, it dawned on me. The statements focused on the very qualities we should be avoiding. Rather than emphasizing what we should be doing, they were drawing attention to undesirable traits.

Language is powerful. It is our primary means of socialization and provides people with the tools required to make sense of the world. Our word choice can have a profound effect on our thoughts and feelings. To test this premise, think of a quality you want to improve upon. Then develop two statements to describe yourself in relation to that quality, one statement phrased in the negative and one in the positive. For example, “I am not worried” (negative version) and “I am hopeful” (positive version). In the negative instance, the emphasis is on the word worry whereas in the positive, attention is drawn to hopeful. Say each phrase aloud and see how your mind and body respond. How do you feel when you say each one? I personally feel more optimistic and proactive with the affirmative version.

This information suggests that better outcomes may result from turning negative statements into positives. The phrase "Thou shalt not kill" might read better as "I will honor human life." But don't stop at the 10 commandments, the principle can apply across the board. People can use affirmations as a way to program their brain. For example, someone who wants to lose weight should avoid, "I don’t want to be overweight" and focus instead on the more confirmatory, "I want to be healthy and fit." By thinking and saying the positive version of what they want to achieve, a person feels better about it, propelling their goal into motion.

Research suggests that affirmations elicit better outcomes for people with high self-esteem. Those who struggle with self-confidence may not interpret positive statements the same way and may in fact prefer to focus on the negative. My suggestion is to work on oneself as much as possible in order to bolster esteem and then use affirmations as a tool for goal achievement.

Of the Ten Commandments, I find “Thou shalt not commit adultery” most interesting because my research focuses on couple relationships. I often wonder why so many people commit infidelity even though they strongly disapprove of it. Could the negative emphasis within the 10 Commandments help explain the mismatch? If people are striving for fidelity, focusing on the word adultery may not elicit their desired outcome. As the saying goes, “Most people cheat because they’re paying attention to what they’re missing rather than what they have.” In other words, focus on the positive rather than the negative and see what good comes your way.