The interface between psychological research on the one hand, and writing on the other, is an intriguing one. It can be informative to take well-evidenced effects in different areas of psychology and speculate as to how they might apply to our writing. This post is about one famous study on eyewitness testimony. The findings have implications for our understanding of the craft of fiction writers, and for the responsibilities of non-fiction writers. And if nothing else, this is one way of getting to know something about a classic study in psychology.
It is thecase (of course) that when writers describe an event, the choices they make about which words to use matter. The images that readers reconstruct in their own mind from sections of prose are shaped by the writer. On one level this is obvious. However, the power of one, single word can be surprising, as illustrated in the psychological literature on leading questions. Let’s take a look at two famous studies by Loftus and Palmer¹.
Bumps and collisions
In the first study, 45 student subjects were shown seven film clips of traffic accidents. The clips were short excerpts from safety films made for driver education. Following each clip, the students were asked to write an account of the accident they had just seen. They were also asked to answer some specific questions, including one about the speed of the vehicles involved in the collision. The subjects were split evenly across five groups. The test question was, ‘About how fast were the cars going when they _____ each other?’ Each group saw a different word inserted into this question. The words were ‘smashed’, ‘collided’, ‘bumped’, ‘hit’, ‘contacted’. The results are shown in Figure 1. The data show that the framing of the question affected the subjects’ estimates of the speed of the vehicle.
Figure 1. Average speed estimates associated with each version of the test question. Data from Lotus and Palmer¹. Figure by AP Grayson.
A similar procedure was used in the second study. One hundred and fifty student subjects saw a short (one minute) film which contained a four-second scene of a multiple car accident. They were then questioned about it. Fifty of the subjects were asked, ‘How fast were the cars going when they hit each other?’ Fifty were asked ‘How fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other?’ The remainder, acting as a control group, were not interrogated about the speed of the vehicles.
One week later the subjects returned and, without viewing the film again, they answered a series of questions about the accident. The critical question was, ‘Did you see any broken glass?’, which was part of a longer series of questions and was placed in a random position on each subject’s question paper. There had been, in fact, no broken glass in the film. Figure 2 shows the responses to this question. These results show how the verb that was used in the question affected the likelihood of a misperception (a misremembering) of glass in the film.
Figure 2. The number of subjects in each group of 50 who reported seeing broken glass. Data from Lotus and Palmer¹. Figure by AP Grayson.
The subjects in the first experiment made different judgements about the speed of the car, depending on the verb that was used to describe the crash to them. The subjects in the second experiment were more likely to misremember seeing shattered glass in the original film if the verb ‘smashed’ was used to characterise the accident than if the word ‘hit’ was used.
It’s very easy to get lost in detailed debates about what these findings might mean with regards to eyewitness testimony, the use of leading questions, and the structure of human memory. Fortunately, we don’t have to go there in this post! For us, the implications are clear. Here we have scientific evidence that the choice of word used to describe an event can have a material impact on the way in which the listener, or reader, reimagines that event.
This body of evidence has its most far-reaching impact in the domain of non-fiction writing. This is because in fiction we already know how significant the use of specific words can be in the writer’s creation of the pictures they are endeavouring to create. That is, after all, part of the whole craft. In the domain of fiction, this sort of study is little more than a scientific demonstration of what we already know to be the case. That happens quite a lot in psychology.
Telling it like it is?
The implications of these findings are a little more profound in the domain of non-fiction writing. They come as a stark reminder to those who are charged with reporting factual stuff. Journalists, historians, political commentators, and so forth. Such reporting should never be regarded as unproblematically factual. Journalists writing about a controversial news story, for example, do not simply ‘tell it how it is’. They have a whole repertoire of resources at their disposal with which to influence the readers’ understandings of events, while all the time being able to claim that they are merely telling it as it is. Indeed, claiming that they are simply presenting the facts of the matter is one of the most powerful rhetorical devices they deploy to convince readers to trust their version of events.
The journalist who chooses to write that a police officer pulled someone to the ground during a protest may be being just as ‘factual’ as the journalist who writes that that police officer wrestled or threw that person to the ground. There are numerous ways in which such incidents can be described, without ever veering into the domain of untruths. But each different characterisation will have its own impact on the perception of the person reading the report. And, of course, those who purport to be presenting ‘the news’, while being mostly motivated to sell copy, or to influence their readers in a particular direction, know this only too well.
All writers have a responsibility to understand the impact of the particular words that they select. It’s just that when we write fiction, our readers are well aware that specific words are employed to achieve specific effects. By way of contrast, readers may not always notice the ways in which the non-fiction writer may be seeking to influence them. And it’s the ‘not noticing’ that leaves a society vulnerable to potentially malign agendas that can hide beneath the ample cover of ‘the facts’.
¹ Loftus, E.F. & Palmer, J.C. (1974). Reconstruction of automobile destruction: An example of the interaction between language and memory. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 13, 585–9.
Written in collaboration with Dr. Phil Banyard.