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How to figure out what someone is really saying, according to science

Forget the emoji—actual word choice not only conveys sentiment or positivity but also packs an emotional punch. There’s a scientific tool designed to help you figure it all out.

How to figure out what someone is really saying, according to science
[Photo: Volodymyr Hryshchenko/Unsplash]

In a world full of emoji, words can tell us, and others, much more than just whether we like or dislike something—or someone. Specific words are imbued with an array of meanings, intensity, and emotion.

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But many people might not realize that their word choice not only conveys sentiment or positivity—it also packs an emotional punch.

Let’s say that someone tells you that the time you spend together is “perfect.” There’s little doubt that this is positive. But what if that person had used “amazing” or “wonderful” instead? While all three are positive words, research shows the latter two carry much more emotion than “perfect,” and this could signal a stronger emotional attachment. Maybe that’s the reason why your crush didn’t use those words—providing some clarity about your relationship.

The science behind the words

Understanding the relationship between words and emotion has been part of a major undertaking for me and my colleagues Loran Nordgren at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and Matthew Rocklage at the University of Massachusetts. Together, we’ve been trying to understand whether people’s words can provide insight into the strength of their emotional reaction to a person or product.

The work began when Matt published a paper that validated a link between the words people use and emotion. Then, together, the three of us decided to push even deeper into this issue. At the core, we want to answer questions around how the specific words people use might reveal whether they have a more emotional attitude and the implications of this more emotional attitude for marketing, persuasion, and behavior. We found that even closely related synonyms—e.g., perfect, wonderful, amazing—differed in their emotional charge.

These insights can be both fun to consider and useful, whether you’re the message sender wanting to convey a precise meaning or you’re the receiver trying to decode what your significant other is saying. It works equally well with your boss or a friend. Put simply, knowing that a word might signal a stronger or weaker emotional reaction might make you think more about the words you are using—or choose other words instead. Such information also could ultimately be valuable for marketing executives, political campaigners, and recruiters who are trying to influence people to make decisions and take action.

The logical question then is which words pack the most punch, both positive and negative. Fortunately, there’s a tool. The Evaluative Lexicon 2.0 (EL 2.0)  measures the emotionality of a word, whether someone’s reaction to it is positive or negative (valence), and the extent of that positive or negative reaction (extremity).

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The EL 2.0 has a vocabulary of over 1,500 words that provides a means to both construct and decode messages. But it’s more than just a thesaurus. It’s a rating mechanism for evaluating and comparing the emotional power of particular words.

Importantly, these aren’t just words that we think reveal emotion. The EL 2.0 was constructed and validated using 15 million online reviews, 1 million tweets, and over 10,000 movie and TV scripts. Our research not only deployed individual raters to evaluate whether a word conveyed emotion; we also demonstrated that such words indeed predict emotional thinking and reactions.

While the EL 2.0 is a helpful tool for picking the right word or attempting to decode someone else’s emotional reaction, context does matter. For example, the word “bloody” is high in negativity and carries a reasonable amount of emotion, but that might be a good thing when you’re describing a horror movie. Then it actually has a positive meaning. So, we have a tool, but people need to be thoughtful about how it is used. In fact, we even have the ability to create custom “lexicons” for marketers based on their industry.

Of course, all of us have idiosyncrasies in the way we speak. Someone who uses the word “amazing” for everything may not feel as much emotional charge from it as someone else. The Evaluative Lexicon cannot provide a definitive answer about how someone feels about you, but it does offer a starting point for understanding the potential differences in emotionality. So, the next time you receive a message, whether from a boss or that special someone—or when you’re the sender—consider more closely what both your own words and others’ words are saying.


Derek D. Rucker is a professor at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

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