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Chapter: Psychology: Language

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How Language Connects to Thought

In one sense it is totally obvious that language influences thought. Otherwise we would not use it at all.

How Language Connects to Thought

In one sense it is totally obvious that language influences thought. Otherwise we would not use it at all. When one person yells “FIRE!” in a crowded room, all of those who hear him rapidly walk, run, or otherwise proceed to the nearest exit. In this case, lan-guage influenced the listeners to think, There’s a fire; fire is dangerous; I’d better get out ofhere FAST. Language use also influences our thought in other ways. It is a convenientway of coding, or chunking, information, with important consequences for memory. The way information is framed when we talk or write can also influence our decisions, so that a patient is more likely to choose a medical treatment if she is told it has a 50% chance of success than if she is told it has a 50% chance of failure . Finally, language can influence our attitudes , a fact well known to advertisers and propagandists: Eat crunchy Pritos! Remember Pearl Harbor!

In all these examples, the choice of words and sentences affects our thinking. Of course, language is not the only way to influence thought and action. Observing the flames is at least as powerful a motivator to flee as is hearing the cry FIRE! Still, lan-guage is an enormously effective conveyer of information, emotions, and attitudes. This much ought to be obvious. Why would we ever listen to a lecture or read a poem or a newspaper if we did not believe that language was a means of getting useful or aesthet-ically pleasing information? But when we speak of language differences influencing thought, it is in quite a different sense from this. In this latter case, we are asking whether the very forms and contents that a language can express change the nature of perception and cognition for its speakers.


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