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Thinking One Thing, Feeling Another

Analyzing how you're doing depends on how you phrase the question.
(Photo: Lali Masriera/Flickr)

(Photo: Lali Masriera/Flickr)

We might like to think of ourselves as having clear, stable feelings on matters of philosophy, politics, or the environment, but it's long been known that something as simple as word choice can influence our thoughts. Now, new experiments show that applies to how we think and feel about ourselves as well, which could have implications for those dealing with low self-esteem.

To understand how language influences us, consider the results of a 2005 Pew Research poll on doctors helping terminally ill patients die. Asked if they supported "giving terminally ill patients the means to end their lives," 51 percent said yes; when asked if they supported doctors "assist[ing] terminally ill patients in committing suicide," 44 percent said yes—even though those two options are essentially the same.

It's not just political opinions that language shapes, Ball State University Professor Thomas Holtgraves writes in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Our internal thoughts—and what we tell others about those thoughts—"involve language at some level," Holtgraves explains. "That is, language is the scaffolding that people use to explore and report on facets of the self."

Asked how we feel, our brains go looking for emotional responses, but asked how we think, they seek rational assessments.

With that in mind, Holtgraves wondered what would happen if he first asked people how they thought they were doing, and then separately asked how they felt they were doing. In the first of four experiments Holtgraves conducted, he asked 141 undergraduates to take five minutes and write either "what you think about yourself" or "what you feel about yourself." Analyzing the relative percentage of negative versus positive emotions in the words—worried, sad, nice, or sweet, for example—revealed that "feel" responses were about 25 percent less positive than "think" responses.

Although that much was true of both men and women, subsequent experiments with 250 SurveyMonkey users, and 279 Amazon Mechanical Turk users found an important difference between men and women. When they took a self-esteem test, women—but not men—reported lower self esteem when the test was phrased in "feel" terms rather than "think" ones. Likely, that's because women who participated in the studies also reported being more emotional people on average than men did. Indeed, emotional orientation was a better indicator of self esteem than gender was.

The results demonstrate the role that language plays in shaping impressions of ourselves, Holtgraves writes. Asked how we feel, our brains go looking for emotional responses, but asked how we think, they seek rational assessments. Though it's speculation at this point, such observations might help researchers design better ways to improve psychological well-being. Paradoxically, it might not be such a great idea to ask people how they feel.

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