How To Get People To Do Stuff: #1 — Use Nouns Instead Of Verbs

"I am a voter"This blog post is the first of a new series called “How To Get People To Do Stuff”. It features nuggets from the book I am writing by the same name due out in March of 2013.

I’m also starting a new format of doing video blogs. So first is the video, and then below it is the text that I talk about in the video.

Let me know what you think about the new topic series and whether you like the video format!

Here’s the research:

Walton, Gregory and Banaji, Mahzarin, Being what you say: the effect of essentialist linguistic labels on preferences, Social Cognition, Vol. 22, No. 2, 2004, pp. 193-213.

In a survey about voting, Gregory Walton at Stanford sometimes asked  “How important is it to you to be a voter in tomorrow’s election?” versus  “How important is it to you to vote in tomorrow’s election?”

The first sentence was phrased so that the emphasis was on the noun, “voter”. The second sentence emphasized “to vote”. Did the wording make a difference?

11% more voted — When the the noun (be a voter) was used instead of the verb (to vote), 11% more people actually voted the following day.  Why would nouns affect behavior more than verbs?

Needing to belong — I had always learned that using direct verbs resulted in more action. But if using a noun invokes group identity, that will trump a direct verb. People have a strong need to feel that they belong. People identify themselves in terms of the groups they belong to and this sense of group can deeply affect their behavior. You can stimulate group identity just by the way you have people talk about themselves or the way you phrase a question. For example, research shows that if people say “I am a chocolate eater” versus “I eat chocolate a lot” it will affect how strong their preference is for chocolate. “Eater” is a noun. “Eat” is a verb.

When you are trying to get people to do stuff try using nouns rather than verbs. Invoke a sense of belonging to a group and it is much more likely that people will comply with your request.

What do you think? Have you tried nouns instead of verbs?

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18 Replies to “How To Get People To Do Stuff: #1 — Use Nouns Instead Of Verbs”

  1. Lovely insight. But i guess it cannot be used in every situation. For example, asking someone to get you a bottle of water. You wouldn’t say be a water :).

  2. I LOVE what you write, Susan, but I’m not sure I buy this argument. After all, the verb in that sentence was “is”. “To Vote” is merely an infinitive. I’ve been struggling to come up with two sentences that would be exactly the same but have vote as a verb and haven’t been able to do so yet. But I think this issue is far more complex than just noun vs. verb.

    1. Yes, and this is the point! Being someone is more important than doing something, especially taking in account the fact that often we doing things that we don’t want to.

  3. You can doing something, eg moving stones, but if I say to you “I’m moving stones” you can’t tell who I am: may be a builder, may be a slave, may be nobody,
    So nouns helps identify oneself, not necessary as a part of a group but just as person.

    Will I vote tomorrow? Why? No reason!
    But if I am a voter, I can surely say “I will” – just because I am a voter, a citizen who want promote his ideas.

    Being someone is strong drive.

  4. Hi Susan: Fun topic. I like the video format, crisp, succinct, and, as always, you cite the relevant research. Looking forward to more posts about getting people to do stuff.

  5. Very interesting study, but I agree with Daphne. It doesn’t seem likely to me that parts of speech are the focus (or even relevant). If it’s about the noun, then I would think that a better experiment would be to add a noun to the statement, “How important is it to vote for _President_?” I think you’re right in saying it’s all about the identity, but I think the verb/noun thing is a stretch.

    In the chocolate case, it’s nouns in both sentences – “I eat chocolate [noun] a lot” vs. “I am a chocolate eater [noun].”

    So if it’s really about the identity and not part of speech, instead of saying, “Please bring me a bottle of water,” I might say, “Be a sweetheart by bringing me a bottle of water.” To get someone to move rocks, instead of “please move those rocks,” I might say, “By moving those rocks, you would be my hero.” Both the sweetheart and hero are positive identities unrelated to the activity. Both make the identity conditional upon the action (is the conditional nature a key factor?) . Voter is a positive identity which is implicitly conditional.

    The identity probably has to be positive like the above cases. “How important is it for you to be a stinking voter tomorrow?” just wouldn’t go over very well, would it? :)

    1. I do share your comment. In my way, «be a voter» can work on positive identity. This study could have gone farther to see if it is group identity or self identity that is more relevant with another question that could have been : «How important is it to you to practise your right to vote in tomorrow’s election??» VS «How important is it to you to be a voter in tomorrow’s election? ».

  6. Actually, these example depend on a verb too: the verb “to be”. In both the voting and the eating example, people were asked to choose between stating who they are and stating what they do.

    1. Susan’s recent London workshop on ‘How to get people to do things’ was inspiring but I do agree with Stella and Daphne on grammar.

      My dictionary says ‘to be’ is a verb, and in the following sentence, ‘to be’ is a copulative (!) verb: ‘He wants to be a doctor’. Copulative verb means it joins together the subject and predicate.

      But, anyway, however you label the linguistic difference between ‘How important is it to you to be a voter?’ and ‘How important is it to you to vote?’ – it is still interesting to know that ‘be a voter’ is more likely to persuade people to act – along with ‘Be a donor’ instead of ‘Donate’ …

  7. So if belonging is such a big thing should we write in this case:

    a) Do you belong to the wine-lovers group of people?


    b) Are you a wine-lover?

    Or something else maybe?

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