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Noun or Verb

We are not referring to the grammatical usage here.

Consider a research context where participants are placed in a situation where they are tempted to cheat for personal gain. However, subtle change in instructions impacted their likelihood of cheating. When the instruction was in verb form (Please don’t cheat), participants cheated more than when the instruction was given in a noun form (Please don’t be a cheater).

Our earlier blogpost explains this behaviour. The primary idea is that the noun form invokes group identity while the verb form only refers to the action or the effort. People may downplay the action but that becomes very difficult when it comes a self-relevant noun.

So framing a praise in noun form may have a much more sustainable behaviour impact.  A recent New York Times article  also corroborated this idea.

But can we apply this rule universally? The book Social gives an interesting counter perspective. In his research on Altruistic behaviour, Dale Miller – a social psychologist at Stanford University, consistently found that people prefer not to accept an altruistic identify of self. So, when someone asks us why we decided to help, more often we tend to ascribe it as a selfish behaviour. Miller explains this as our tendency to conform to the cultural norm that human beings are self-interested.

Thus, sometimes we prefer focusing on the action while in other cases the identity works stronger. And these contradicting studies highlight the most important perspective of human behaviour – Context is critical.


Context-is-king-1024x768

Explanation of human decision making will always be incomplete without considering the influence of the contextual elements. The context of Cheating is different to the context of Altruism and as a result our appraisal of the stimulus also varies.

Impact of behaviour change communication will always be impacted by the context – be it using noun or verb.

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