Using Abstract Language Signals Power

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Using Abstract Language Signals Power

Cheryl J. Wakslak

University of Southern California

Pamela K. Smith

University of California, San Diego

Albert Han

University of Southern California

Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2014, Vol. 107, No. 1, 41–55

© 2014 American Psychological Association

This article may not exactly replicate the final version published in the APA journal. It is not the copy of record.


Power can be gained through appearances: People who exhibit behavioral signals of power are often treated in a way that allows them to actually achieve such power (Ridgeway, Berger, & Smith, 1985; Smith & Galinsky, 2010). In the current paper we examine power signals within interpersonal communication, exploring whether use of concrete versus abstract language is seen as a signal of power. Since power activates abstraction (e.g., Smith & Trope, 2006), perceivers may expect higher-power individuals to speak more abstractly and therefore will infer that speakers who use more abstract language have a higher degree of power. Across a variety of contexts and conversational subjects in six experiments, participants perceived respondents as more powerful when they used more abstract language (versus more concrete language). Abstract language use appears to affect perceived power because it seems to reflect both a willingness to judge and a general style of abstract thinking.
Keywords: power, perception, distance, abstraction, social judgment

Managing other’s impressions of one’s power is a critical skill. Being seen as powerful can elicit treatment from others that allows one to actually achieve such power (Ridgeway, Berger, & Smith, 1985; Smith & Galinsky, 2010). Having power means having more control over one’s own life and therefore is associated with numerous positive outcomes for the individual, including an increased ability to achieve one’s goals (e.g., Galinsky, Gruenfeld, & Magee, 2003; Guinote, 2007; Karremans & Smith, 2010) and the goals of one’s organization (Overbeck & Park, 2006), increased freedom to express oneself (e.g., Anderson & Berdahl, 2002) and behave in line with one’s core values (e.g., Chen, Lee-Chai. & Bargh, 2001; DeCelles, DeRue, Margolis, & Ceranic, 2012), and even an array of positive health outcomes (e.g., Marmot et al., 1991; Sherman et al, 2012). Thus, the possession of power is often a goal in itself. Moreover, individuals who occupy high-power positions but are not perceived as powerful risk their position being viewed as illegitimate (Magee & Galinsky, 2008). While some behaviors signaling power may be difficult to enact with limited resources (e.g., loaning money, exerting influence, taking action; Goldhamer & Shils, 1939), others may be relatively easy to adopt (e.g., a lower-pitched voice; Carney, Hall, & Smith LeBeau, 2005). In the current paper we examine whether a person’s use of relatively concrete or abstract language can serve as a subtle but meaningful signal of power, exploring this idea across six studies that manipulate linguistic abstraction in various ways and measure power and leadership inferences.

Linguistic Abstraction as a Power Cue

Recent research on power inferences has increasingly emphasized the subtle ways that people signal their degree of power. Converging evidence suggests that when power is associated with a behavioral signal people become sensitive to the signal itself, leading them to infer the presence of power when witnessing the associated behavior (Smith & Galinsky, 2010). For example, Galinsky et al.(2003) found that having power is associated with taking action (e.g., being more likely to act on an external stimulus, such as an annoying fan blowing in one’s direction); people’s sensitivity to this association is highlighted by their corresponding perception of those who take more action as being more powerful (Magee, 2009). Likewise, individuals placed in a powerful role tend to lower their voice pitch (Puts, Gaulin, & Verdolini, 2006), and individuals asked to speak with a lower-pitched voice (versus their normal voice) not only feel more powerful (Stel, van Dijk, Smith, van Dijk, & Djalal, 2012), but are also judged by observers as having more power (Puts et al., 2006; Puts, Hodges, Cardenas, & Gaulin, 2007).

The central premise of the current paper is that a speaker’s use of more abstract language may serve as a cue that the speaker is powerful. A behavioral signal approach suggests one reason that power may be inferred from linguistic abstraction. Power triggers a broad psychological shift toward abstract processing (Smith & Trope, 2006), whereby people in higher power roles (or who momentarily feel more powerful) increasingly construe information in an abstract fashion that captures the gist or essence of the presented information (Huang, Galinsky, Gruenfeld, & Guillory, 2011; Magee, Milliken, & Lurie, 2010; Smith & Trope, 2006; Stel et al., 2012; see Magee & Smith, 2013, for a recent review). In other words, power is associated with the cognitive signal of abstract thinking. Indeed, being made to think in a more abstract manner also makes individuals feel more powerful (Smith, Wigboldus, & Dijksterhuis, 2008). Though thought processes are sometimes considered unobservable, these cognitive effects of power can lead to different outputs that are visible to perceivers. A major example of this is linguistic communication: When discussing a topic, a speaker may express information either in a more concrete way that provides many details and emphasizes specific actions or features, or in a more abstract way that captures a topic’s overall gist or meaning. For example, a speaker discussing a massive earthquake might either state that 120 people died and 400 were injured (a concrete statement conveying specific details), or that the earthquake is a national tragedy (an abstract statement conveying higher-level meaning). Consistent with a general power-abstraction relationship, several studies have found that those high in power use more abstract language than those low in power. For example, members of a majority, high-power group used more abstract language to describe both in-group and out-group members than individuals who were part of the minority (Guinote, 2001); high-power-primed participants used more abstract language to describe actions than low-power-primed participants (Smith & Trope, 2006); and those in positions of authority used more abstract language to describe the terrorist attacks of September 11th (Magee et al., 2010). Abstract language may therefore serve as a power signal, with people expecting those higher in power to speak more abstractly, and consequently perceiving people who speak more abstractly as more powerful.

Furthermore, beyond a mere association, abstract language reflects a more removed, “outside” perspective, and is highly linked with psychological distance (Trope & Liberman, 2010). This style of speech fits our expectations of the powerful: We expect powerful people to be outside and above things, rather than in the midst of them (Giessner & Schubert, 2007). When people use abstract language, they communicate that they are removed from the action and able to distill the gist or essence of the situation, instead of focusing on the concrete actions that would be most salient if they were “on the ground.” This ability to see the big picture is something we expect of those with power; as such, abstract language should serve as a power cue.

Moreover, one aspect of many types of abstract speech is that such speech confers judgment (Maass, 1999; Maass, Salvi, Arcuri, & Semin, 1989). Abstract language, relative to concrete language, moves further away from specific, objective, immediate physical details. To move away from these details, the speaker must make judgments about the broader meaning or implications of the situation, the broader goals of the actor or actors, etc. For example, adjectives have been identified as more abstract linguistic categories than verbs (Semin & Fiedler, 1988) in that they do not describe the actions that occurred but rather represent an inference about the relatively invariant characteristics of the actor. Such an inference leads adjectives to tend to connote judgment and be more strongly valenced than concrete verb descriptions (Semin & Fiedler, 1988).

Power is also associated with being judgmental. High-power individuals are more likely to express their opinions (Anderson & Berdahl, 2002; Berdahl & Martorana, 2006; Galinsky, Magee, Gruenfeld, Whitson, & Liljenquist, 2008) and feel more entitled to judge others (Goodwin, Gubin, Fiske, & Yzerbyt, 2000) than low-power individuals. Moreover, other people seem to allow, and even expect, those in high-power positions to evaluate others and express judgment (e.g., Foucault & Gordon, 1980). People’s belief that powerful people are more judgmental may therefore be an additional mechanism supporting their use of linguistic abstraction as a cue for power.

However, while we believe the association between linguistic abstraction and perception of power is logical for the reasons detailed above, we do not think this association is especially obvious to those who seek power. That is, while people may be aware of their expectation for those high in power to communicate the “big picture,” they may not realize that people will make meaningful inferences about a speaker’s power based on his or her linguistic abstraction. Indeed, though individuals are able to use language abstraction flexibly to achieve explicit communication goals (e.g., Douglas & Sutton, 2003), it is not clear that communicators are always aware of their language use or its interpretation by perceivers; to the contrary, a body of research suggests that communicators often do not have an accurate sense of how their speech is interpreted by others (e.g., Keysar & Henly, 2002; Vorauer & Claude, 1998). The many past examples of speakers focusing on concrete details while hoping to seem powerful (e.g., the wonky political candidate), suggest that the idea of abstraction as a cue for power is not a trivial insight.

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