Consider the following two scenarios about two politicians running for reelection and choose which one of the two is less likely to win his reelection:
a. Mark Johnson is a Senator in the United States Senate. He is up for reelection. He graduated from the University of Texas, Austin with a degree in political science. Mark’s first term as a United States Senator is almost complete. Last year, Mark had an affair with his assistant and took hush money from a prominent constituent.
b. Mike Johnson is a Senator in the United States Senate. He is up for reelection. He graduated from the University of Texas, Austin with a degree in political science. Mike’s first term as a United States Senator is almost complete. Last year, Mike was having an affair with his assistant and was taking hush money from a prominent constituent.
Chances are that you picked Mike as the person who is less likely to win his reelection. In both scenarios Mark and Mike are described as having engaged in illicit activities but for grammatical reasons the illicit activities by Mike seems more despicable. More specifically, Mark’s illicit activities are described in perfective aspect (Verb+ed, Mark had an affair), while Mike’s illicit activities are described in imperfective aspect (Verb+ing, Mike was having an affair).
Two different studies carried out by Fausey & Matlock (2011), researchers at Indiana University and University of California, Merced, discovered the exact phenomenon described above, where imperfective descriptions of negative actions resulted in participants claiming that a fictional candidate was less likely to get reelected than a candidate whose negative actions were described in a perfective form.
In one of the studies a total of 354 participants were told to read a short description of a fictitious senator up for reelection who either did (perfective) or was doing (imperfective) negative or positive actions, similar to the descriptions of fictitious senators present in the beginning of this article. After reading the description the participants were told to answer the following questions:
1. Will this candidate be reelected (Yes or No)
2. How confident are you about your decision regarding reelection (on a scale of 1 – 7)
3. Estimate the amount of hush money (for negative valence condition)
4. Estimate the amount of donation money (for positive valence condition)
As noted before, the results of the study demonstrated that when negative actions were described in imperfective form the participants were more likely to say “no” to the question of re-electability and claim that larger amounts of hush money was taken by the fictitious politician in the story. Manipulating the imperfective and perfective form in positive story about the politician did not have any influence over the participants perception that a politician was somehow more or less electable.
So why did a change in grammar made a difference in how a fictitious politician was perceived when grammatical changes were applied to descriptions about insidious activities carried out by the politician but not when they were applied to descriptions about positive acts carried out by the politician? One reason is that people are inherently inclined to pay more attention to negative events than positive ones (Baumeister et al., 2001). From an evolutionary perspective, paying extra attention to negative events has a higher survival value for us because people like to avoid losses whenever possible (Kahneman & Tversky, 1979).. Furthermore, when two bad alternatives are juxtaposed next to each other we have a tendency to perceive gap between them to be much greater than two positive alternatives that when are juxtaposed next to each other are perceived to be of equal value.
Why did imperfective vs. perfective form made a difference in participants perception about whether or not a politician was likely to win reelection? Imperfective and perfective forms make a difference as to how people perceive unfolding of events in time. When reading about events in the past written in imperfective form people like to take an internal perspective (Feretti & Katz, 2010). People have also an inclination to think that more action occurs when reading descriptions about something in imperfective form compared to perfective form. Finally, when events are described in imperfective form people have a tendency to think that past actions are more likely to be continued in the future (Hart & Albarracin, 2009).
Baumeister, R.F., Bratslavsky, E., Finkenhauer, C., & Vohs, K.D. (2001). Bad is stronger than good. Review of General Psychology, 5, 323-370.
Fausey, C.M., & Matlock, T. (2011). Can grammar win elections? Political Psychology, 32, 563-574.
Ferretti, T.R., Kutas, M., & McRae, K. (2007). Verb aspect and the activation of event knowledge. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 33, 182-196.
Hart, W., & Albarracin, D. (2009). What I was doing vs. what I did: Verb aspect influences memory and future actions. Psychological Science, 20, 238-244.
Kahneman, D., & Tversky, A. (1979). Prospect theory: An analysis of decision under risk. Econometrica, 47, 263-291.