Wednesday, October 26, 2005

How labels shape our attitudes toward violence

Jessica Giles, an Vanderbilt University psychologist, has found that noun labels such as "murderer" are much more rhetorically effective than phrases like "someone who commits murder":
"Noun labels have a powerful influence on our thoughts and beliefs about others. In the criminal justice system, potential jurors who repeatedly hear a defendant being called a 'strangler' in the press might be more likely to support a death sentence for that defendant," Giles, assistant professor of psychology in the Vanderbilt Peabody College of Education and Human Development, said. "That these labels might also be used to manipulate, inflame or prejudice the general public is of substantial interest in light of recent political rhetoric concerning 'terrorists' and 'evildoers.'"

Giles' recent research found that both children and adults are more likely to have a negative, fixed view of people described with a noun, such as "evildoer" or "murderer," than a person described as "someone who does evil things" or "someone who commits murder." Giles presented the research at the meeting of the Cognitive Development Society in San Diego Oct. 21.
While Giles' research and her conclusions are geared toward public policy and childhood development, there's much to think about here for those teaching rhetoric and composition, both in terms of understanding how to influence your audience (and the ethics involved) and in terms of style (naming agents, reducing wordy phrases, using emphasis, using specific language, etc.).

via CogNews

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