Controlling the narrative: Euphemistic language affects judgments of actions while avoiding perceptions of dishonesty

Walker, Alexander C.; Turpin, Martin Harry; Meyers, Ethan A.; Stolz, Jennifer A.; Fugelsang, Jonathan A.; Koehler, Derek J.

The present work (N = 1906 U.S. residents) investigates the extent to which peoples' evaluations of actions can be biased by the strategic use of euphemistic (agreeable) and dysphemistic (disagreeable) terms. We find that participants' evaluations of actions are made more favorable by replacing a disagreeable term (e.g., torture) with a semantically related agreeable term (e.g., enhanced interrogation) in an act's description. Notably, the influence of agreeable and disagreeable terms was reduced (but not eliminated) when making actions less ambiguous by providing participants with a detailed description of each action. Despite their influence, participants judged both agreeable and disagreeable action descriptions as largely truthful and distinct from lies, and judged agents using such descriptions as more trustworthy and moral than liars. Overall, the results of the current study suggest that a strategic speaker can, through the careful use of language, sway the opinions of others in a preferred direction while avoiding many of the reputational costs associated with less subtle forms of linguistic manipulation (e.g., lying). 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 the strategic use of language.