The use of euphemisms to bend the truth and make it more appealing actually does pay for leaders and other authority figures, a new paper explains. Through their use, they can sway people while avoiding any loss of reputation from outright lying.
Also known as doublespeak, this way of communicating is one of my biggest pet peeves today. As much as they can be used to delicately treat a personal issue, euphemisms can — and are — used to hide the truth and mislead people. One example of doublespeak would be replacing the term “torture” with “enhanced interrogation”. Although they mean the exact same thing, the latter term is much more natural and easily accepted by most people than the former.
Essentially, what it is is manipulation through a ‘hygienization’ of the truth. And sadly, according to a new paper, it works.
Read between the lines
“Like the much-studied phenomenon of ‘fake news,’ manipulative language can serve as a tool for misleading the public, doing so not with falsehoods but rather with the strategic use of euphemistic language,” said Alexander Walker, lead author of the study and a Ph.D. candidate in cognitive psychology at Waterloo.
“The avoidance of objectively false claims may provide the strategic user of language with plausible deniability of dishonesty, thus protecting them from the reputational cost associated with lying.”
As part of a larger series of studies into doublespeak — including its effectiveness, consequences, and mechanisms in a psychological context — the authors wanted to check whether the use of such language can influence how people evaluate certain actions.
The definition of doublespeak they used was that of strategic manipulation of language, with the purpose of influencing others’ opinions by rephrasing the truth in a manner which benefits the speaker. The team worked with around 1,900 participants, all from the U.S., asking them to evaluate certain scenarios.
All in all, they report that participants were likely to more favorably rate the same scenario when disagreeable terms such as “working in a slaughterhouse” were replaced with something more palatable, like “working at a meat-processing plant”. The influence of both agreeable and disagreeable terms was reduced when the actions were presented more clearly (rather than in an ambiguous fashion), which is to be expected. Euphemisms are meant to hide or dress up the truth, but context can show them for what they are.
Participants also tended to consider both agreeable and disagreeable descriptions of the events as largely truthful, and judged those who used more ample descriptions of events as being more trustworthy and moral than liars.
Still, the authors conclude that a skilled speaker can sway the opinions of others in a desired direction through careful use of language. Doublespeak can also help protect them from being perceived as liars, which comes with a heavy social cost. All things considered, however, doublespeak is still a manipulative tactic, which serves to mislead not with false statements (like lying), but with strategic use of language.
Others’ perception and evaluation of a certain event can be skewed in a predictable, self-serving way by a speaker that uses more or less agreeable terms when describing an action.
“Our study shows how language can be used strategically to shape peoples’ opinions of events or actions,” Walker said. “With a lower level of risk, individuals may be able to utilize linguistic manipulation, such as doublespeak, often without correction.”
My personal issue with doublespeak is how insidious it can be, while, at first, seeming innocent. As someone whose bread and butter is communication and, in part, the shaping of others’ perceptions of the world around them, the use of euphemisms is beyond irritating. I encounter it a lot, since people have a vested interest in presenting their best side to the public, and I’m the one who does the presenting.
But it’s also quite easy to spot with a bit of practice.
Be wary of people who aren’t straight with you, especially with those who are telling you what you want to hear. Be critical of exaggerations, bombastic statements, bold conclusions that call to action. Is it that something “always” happens if it happened to a speaker once? Are certain people actually “terrorists” or are they fighting against a much more powerful foe with the only weapons they can, for a cause they themselves see as just and justified? Is it “the death of freedom”, really, or is it just a temporary measure to curb a pandemic?
You’re free to, and you should, form your own opinions on any topic.
Question everything you’re told. Don’t believe everyone else will have your best interest at heart and don’t expect them to give you the truth. Some will serve only their own interests, and part of that is trying to tell you what to believe. Just because they’re not ‘technically lying’ doesn’t mean they’re not trying to trick you. It’s on you to pick up on the cues that someone is being manipulative and to see through the smoke and mirrors. A big step towards that is to be on the lookout for doublespeak, euphemisms, and people prettying up the truth.
The paper “Controlling the narrative: Euphemistic language affects judgments of actions while avoiding perceptions of dishonesty” has been published in the journal Cognition.