Thursday, January 14, 2010

Words We Use DO Make a Difference?!

More corroboration of the connection between the words we use and the meanings we make comes in an article from the International Journal of Drug Policy, reported here.

Researchers developed two different texts about a man who was "having trouble keeping to his court-ordered treatment program requiring abstinence from alcohol and other drugs." In one version, the man is labeled as "substance abuser" while in the other, he is described as "having a substance-abuse disorder". These two texts were presented to mental health workers, after which the subjects were asked their opinions on how to treat the "patient".

The PhysOrg blog poster, apparently associated with Mass General Hospital, reports:

participants who received the paragraph describing [the patient] as a "substance abuser" were significantly more likely to agree that he should be punished for not following his required treatment plan. They were also more likely to agree with statements implying that that he was more to blame for his difficulty adhering to the court requirements.
The posting continues:
"We found that referring to someone with the 'abuser' terminology evokes more punitive attitudes than does describing that person's situation in exactly the same words except for using 'disorder' terminology," says John F. Kelly, PhD, associate director of the MGH Center for Addiction Medicine, who led the study.
GS has long made a distinction between the application of a label and the reporting of observed process-oriented conditions. As the researchers found, the label inevitably reduces the individuality of the person labeled, enabling erroneous or prejudicial inferences to cloud the evaluation of the situation. Conversely, the use of scientific terms and phrases that describe the behavior or actions of person provide some distance between the person and the behavior, allowing the evaluator to treat the behavior with less prejudice and inference.

What we say about someone or something can influence not only how others react, but how we ourselves react to the words we have just used. Awareness of this interaction, and the effects it can have, can reduce the potential damaging effects of inadvertent prejudice and improve the outcome of treatment.

As Kelly says, ""There's an old proverb that states, if you want something to survive and flourish, call it a flower; if you want to kill it, call it a weed."

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