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When Words Can Make All The Difference

When Words Can Make All The Difference
Psychology, Diplomacy, Real-world example

Article Rating:::: 11 Ratings :::: Thursday, September 6, 2007

Words can be quite powerful and have profound effect on the audience. The correct use of words can make your life a lot easier. Usually, it comes down to the tone of your argument and the incentives it provides.

To illustrate this point further, a series of scenarios are provided in this article. In each scenario a concept is stated in two different ways. One way is much more efficient than the other. The difference between the statements can show you the subtlety of choosing words and the consequences of using the wrong ones at the wrong time.

Scenario A

A while ago, I was travelling between two cities on a bus. The usual practice is that, after boarding, the driver will explain where he is going and if there are going to be any stops, refreshments, etc. They also remind passengers to wear seatbelts. In Britain, all coaches are now equipped with seatbelts and the law states that passengers should wear them. However, wearing seatbelts is not as rigidly exercised on buses as on cars. Hence, the drivers always try to remind, and perhaps teach, the passengers to wear their seatbelts.

Interestingly, drivers state this in many different ways. If you were a field psychologist, this setup will provide a fantastic experimental environment where you can easily see the effect of the driver's statement on the passengers behaviours. All you have to do is to see if the statement made the passengers wear their seatbelts or if they simply ignored the driver's comments altogether.

In my experience, I heard two interesting statements where one was very ineffective, while the other almost got everyone to put their seatbelts on instantly!

Here are the two statements:
  • "If stopped by the police, you will be charged £60 on the spot."

  • "You are only insured if you wear your seatbelt. In case of an accident, insurance will not provide any support if you have not worn your seatbelt."


You can probably guess which one more is effective. The threatening statement didn't work as much as the other. This clearly shows that a financial threat is less effective than stating a potential risk on your health. The problem with the first statement is that it provides an economic incentive which is only enforceable in case police stops the bus. Stopping a bus in the middle of a motorway, by the police, to charge the passengers for not wearing a seatbelt, is a highly unlikely event. In addition, the worst case scenario is a fixed penalty of £60.

The second case has a much greater incentive. It plays on the possibility that an accident can happen. Everyone is familiar with the concept and having an accident is more worrying than being stopped by the police. It also states that in case of an accident and personal injury, you will be insured if you follow the driver's advice; to wear a simple seatbelt. This creates a much higher incentive than the first statement, since it involves a risk to health, high costs of hospital if an accident happens and the fact that you will feel safer if you wear a seatbelt. In contrast, the other statement will only lead to a worst case scenario of paying a maximum of £60.

My experience so far has shown that almost everyone wore their seatbelts with the second statement.

Scenario B

Now similarly, power of words can also be used in Risk to create a high incentive for other players to follow your advice. Imagine while you are playing Risk, you want to convince another player to act against a third player that is becoming dangerously powerful. You want to use the most effective statement that will convince the other player to do something about this situation. The problem is that if he doesn't help you on this, you can be in big trouble. What would you say?

Consider the following statements:
  • "If you don't attack him, you may lose."
  • "Your survival depends on this. If you don't do anything about it, he will come to dominate the entire game for a long time."


The second statement is much more effective than the first one. In Risk, any player is always vulnerable. Stating that you may lose, doesn't add anything, since everyone knows that already. On the other hand, the second statement plays on three distinct concepts. It suggests that the problem is significant, all encompassing and permanent. The combination of these three elements makes the statement more powerful which is indeed what you intend to deliver. Use this approach to 'Big it Up'.

You may also use the opposite to reduce the importance of a situation. You can construct a statement to be insignificant, temporary and isolated. Use this approach to 'Play it Down'.

Post Rating


epall   By epall @ Monday, October 29, 2007 7:19 PM
This is so important! I have won many a game with a few well-placed suggestions.

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I am a board game and Risk game enthusiast. I like thinking and talking about strategy in games which has led me to the creation of this website. Although Risk is a classic, I feel one can never get tired of playing this game. Read about what I think of the game and I am always eager to know what you think.

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