What difference does it make if a prosecutor describes a defendant as a "murderer" or as "someone who commits murder?" In some cases, those few words could mean the difference between life and death.
New research by Vanderbilt University psychologist Jessica Giles reveals that beliefs about people who have committed violent acts are strongly influenced by the words used to describe those people.
"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.
"We use nouns generally to describe things whose essential nature does not change: brick, house, dog," Giles said. "We learn at a very early age that nouns are used to describe something's fundamental character. As a result, when we hear a person being described with a noun--murderer, sex offender, criminal--we tend to automatically infer that that person cannot and will not change."
Giles has conducted multiple studies examining the impact on adults and children of using nouns to describe violence and aggression. In a recent study, 90 adults were given surveys about what they believe causes violence, their perceptions of the effectiveness of criminal rehabilitation and their attitudes toward legal sanctions. In one version, the survey questions used the word "murderer"; questions in the other version used "people who commit murder." She found that participants whose surveys used the term "murderer" were more likely to respond that the person described is inherently violent and will not change, more likely to endorse punitive legal sanctions and less likely to view rehabilitation as effective.
Giles then looked at the impact of noun labels on participants' attitudes toward Megan's Law, which mandates that people convicted of certain classes of sex crimes register their whereabouts when released from prison. She found that participants were significantly more likely to endorse the law when questions were posed using the noun label "sex offender" than when using the phrase "commits sex offenses."
Giles found that the effect of noun labels is also strong in children. In one study, preschoolers who heard a character described as an "evildoer" were more likely to infer stability over time and resistance to intervention than were children who heard a character described as someone who "who does evil things whenever he can." The same held true in additional work using the label "bully."
The research strongly suggests that children use nouns as powerful cues for making sense of people and their behavior.
"In addition to demonstrating that noun labels can influence adults' beliefs and attitudes, this study also indicates that the way we talk to our children about violence and aggression has an early and lasting impact," Giles said. "We know that the use of labels like "bully" to describe children who have misbehaved can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. We need to focus on changing the behavior and building the child's strengths as opposed to pigeonholing him or her based on a label."
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