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What are politicians really saying?

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Research offers advice for understanding the method to campaign messages.

With Canadians staring down the barrel of another federal election, a University of Calgary linguistics researcher predicts political parties will spend a great deal of time and effort on words that most voters won’t even think about.

“We know that people are most susceptible to unconsciously-processed cues when they are distracted or can’t devote their full attention to a message,” says Dr. Julie Sedivy, adjunct associate professor of linguistics and psychology at the University of Calgary.

“That’s when their ability to distinguish between strong and weak arguments is compromised. It takes real mental commitment to process information in the rational stream of thinking. It’s always a good idea to ask questions about why a message was phrased the way it was.”

In their study of how language is processed in our brains, Sedivy and colleague Dr. Greg Carlson, professor at the University of Rochester, examine the ways in which language is used to influence our choices as consumers and citizens and sometimes even make decisions for us.

They suggest the choices we make about who to vote for or what products to buy are partly determined by a complex web of associations that we are not always conscious of. In the meantime, advertisers and political strategists across North America are pumping billions of dollars every year into determining exactly what those associations are with the aim of influencing us.

For example, Sedivy notes that during last fall’s civic election, successful Calgary mayoralty candidate Naheed Nenshi subtly changed the way he described a new—and contentious—proposed way to access the city’s airport from ‘airport tunnel’ to ‘airport underpass.’

A tunnel, says Sedivy, conjures up images and associations of time and money spent on deep holes with tons of cement. An underpass however, gives the impression of something much less expensive and formidable.

“When we process language, we’re only aware of a very small part of the information that our minds are taking in and responding to,” says Sedivy.

In our mental dictionary, words are connected to many other words that are in turn connected to other sounds and meanings.

“We have a theory of ourselves as rational individuals making decisions and our economic and political systems are predicated on this. In reality, it’s rare that this happens in a pure way.”

Sedivy says that if there is a federal election this spring, political campaigns will pour resources into determining the language the public will respond to. That language may have nothing to do with communicating the best ideas, but how the ideas are presented.

Sedivy and Carlson’s research is published in the book Sold on Language: How Advertisers Talk to You and What this Says About You, released this month.