When discussing the Oregon shooting at Umpqua Community College last week, Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush explained that "stuff happens," suggesting that such events can't be prevented and, by implication, that legislators — and gun control laws — are not responsible.
When asked whether Pope Francis's controversial meeting with gay marriage opponent Kim Davis was the result of an intentional set up, Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi's assistant responded: "No...these things happen."
Politicians and other public figures are famous for clever evasions and roundabout claims. Instead of apologizing for shooting Harry Whittington in a hunting accident in 2006, then Vice President Dick Cheney confessed that he was, indeed, "the guy who pulled the trigger that fired the round that hit Harry." In 2004, Justin Timberlake described an event that resulted in exposing Janet Jackson's breast in a Super Bowl halftime show as a "wardrobe malfunction." (Wikipedia helpfully explains: "It is different from indecent exposure or flashing, as the latter ones imply a deliberate exposure.")
Are these linguistic maneuvers merely ornamental or do they genuinely influence how people think about the events being described — and about the moral responsibility of the people involved in bringing them about?
Psychologists and linguists have long been interested in the extent to which language affects thought, including whether and how different ways of communicating similar information can influence subsequent thinking. If Bush tells us that "stuff happens" (rather than, say, that "people use guns to commit atrocities"), are we less inclined to seek stricter gun control? If Timberlake points to a wardrobe malfunction, are we less likely to hold him responsible for violating FCC regulations?
The research to date suggests the answer is "yes": language matters. Describing events in different ways can affect the way we assess people's responsibility for events and even how wrong we consider their actions to be. Consider some examples from recent research.
In a study reported in a 2010 paper by Caitlin Fausey and Lera Boroditsky, participants read about a woman, Mrs. Smith, who started a fire in a restaurant. Some read a version that explicitly marked her role in the events: "Mrs. Smith followed her friends and as she stood up, she flopped her napkin on the centerpiece candle. She had ignited the napkin!" Others read about the same episode but where the napkin, rather than Mrs. Smith, played a more central role: "Mrs. Smith followed her friends and as she stood up, her napkin flopped on the centerpiece candle. The napkin had ignited!" Those who read the former version thought Mrs. Smith deserved more blame for the fire, and that she should be required to pay for a greater proportion of the damage that ensued.
In another study, Fausey and Boroditsky considered Jackson's wardrobe malfunction. Some participants read a version of events that included a description of how Timberlake's final dance move "unfastened a snap and tore part of the bodice!" Others read that "a snap unfastened and part of the bodice tore!" Those who read the former version were more likely to blame Timberlake for the event and to believe he should have been fined.
In a paper by Aleksandr Chakroff and colleagues published earlier this year, participants read about unethical acts described in relatively explicit versus more indirect, euphemistic ways. For instance, some participants read the following vignette:
Imagine the following: You are on a road trip, driving on a long straight country road in Nebraska. You are pulled over by a police officer, who informs you that you were going 75 in a 55 mph zone, which carries a $150 fine and 4 points off your license. You apologize profusely and explain that you will be more careful next time. You hand the police officer your registration with a folded $50 bill underneath. The police officer returns the registration and decides to let you off with a warning.
Participants were then asked how morally permissible it would be to do what was described but the event was characterized in different ways for different participants. Some participants saw the question in a relatively explicit form, like this:
How morally permissible would it be for you to do this: to bribe the officer?
Others received the question with a more euphemistic description of what occurred:
How morally permissible would it be for you to do this: to make sure things go smoothly?
Participants not only found a range of unethical acts more morally permissible when they were described in less explicit form, they also indicated that they were more likely to actually do what was described.
These examples illustrate the power of language. The very same event can be described in a variety of ways, each of which conveys subtly different information and affects what we come to believe. The way politicians describe events can shift our ascriptions of blame (Harry was hit by the round fired by the gun!). And the way we describe actions to others and to ourselves can influence how unethical the actions seem (it was music sharing, not illegally downloading music!).
It's true: Stuff happens. But there's more than one way to talk about it — and the way we talk about it matters.
Tania Lombrozo is a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley. She writes about psychology, cognitive science and philosophy, with occasional forays into parenting and veganism. You can keep up with more of what she is thinking on Twitter: @TaniaLombrozo