“Please don’t cheat “ vs “ Please don’t be a cheater” – which of the above statements do you think will actually influence your actions? They seem to say the same thing but surprisingly the latter has a higher potential of making you stick to your morals.
Subtle differences in language can affect people’s attitudes and perception of both themselves and others (Banaji & Walton, 1994). As humans we constantly strive to be a part of group or a clan and this constant desire can deeply affect out behavior. One can stimulate this sense of identity just by the construct of their question or statement. Research ( Bryan, Adams, & Monin, in press) has shown that noun vs. verb framing of sentences has implications on preventing unethical behavior. Take the first two sentences, for instance – these are inspired from noun vs. verb manipulation. The first sentence uses a verb or action (cheat) and the later emphasizes on using a noun or personality trait (cheater) which invokes group identity. When ‘Please don’t cheat’ (verb form) was used in the instructions, participants in a group resorted to the same amount of cheating as a baseline group, whereas using ‘Please don’t be a cheater’ (noun) eliminated cheating completely.
Why should this happen? People can downplay instances of cheating and convince themselves that these occasional lapses do not make one a dishonest person – this is harder to do with the use of a self-relevant noun that clearly states the implications of cheating.
The implications of this subtle influence on pro-social behavior is huge. If “Don’t be a drunk driver” is more effective that “Don’t drink and drive” and “Don’t be a litter-bug” more effective that “Please don’t litter”, all signage world-wide can be made more effective by taking these framing effects into account.