Reigniting Trust

Language Matters

The art of persuasion is changing, with morals and values playing a larger role

Colin Tucker Smith

Colin Tucker Smith, Ph.D. is an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Florida, specializing in political psychology. He studies the impact of language on trust and is conducting research supported by the Consortium on Trust in Media and Technology. The interview has been edited for length and style.

Tell us about yourself and your work with the Consortium on Trust in Media and Technology

I am an implicit social cognition researcher, which means I study non-conscious attitudes. Over time, I got increasingly interested in politics because it is addictive and interesting. I moved towards political psychology, and one of the things that I realized is that left and the right are talking past each other. They are using different language. They are responding to different values and morals. It is too much to say they are on different planets, but they are talking differently. They are trusting different sources. So that is where I started to intersect with the work on trust.

| Click here to read about Colin Tucker Smith’s research. |

Explain how psychology may be able to shed new light on the current political climate and the issue of trust.

I have studied persuasion and I think that we are going be persuading people differently based on their moral values or their psychological profile. Basically, the key is speaking to people in their language, because if we give messages from on high, nobody trusts them. Like my sister, for example, does not trust The New York Times anymore, and if it is from The New York Times, she just says, “Yeah, it is from The New York Times. I do not trust them.”

We have to find a common language and speak to people in that language. I think that we need to speak in moral values and in language that people understand. That is what fosters trust: not speaking to people, speaking with people. We may need to know something about the listener in order to persuade them, in order for them to listen and to not immediately shut down.

We know if we give them jargon and junk from the ivory tower, they are going to say, “What? I am not listening to this.” So we really have to speak in the mental language that people are prepared to hear.

What questions do you hope to answer?

Basically, we are really interested in the power of language, so it will be questions like, does it matter to whom you are speaking? Do you have to tailor your message in order for a message to be effective? The answer, of course, is yes, but how exactly should you do that? I do not know what they call this in marketing, but it’s micro-targeting. It is just trying to understand who needs to hear what kind of message.

Tell us more about the relationship between language and trust.

In my field of social psychology, trust is one of the old variables that we use in the persuasion models. You are persuaded by people you trust, and the manipulations we used were like, “Jeff, the Yale-educated chemist who is 53 years old and works for a big company.” That used to work as a trust manipulation. But over time, some people do not trust Yale anymore, right? There started to be a realization that trust is not a unified thing that you can just hand somebody and say, “here, trust this.” So I think it is really important that we understand that trust is different for everybody.

I think that we need to take the listener very seriously.  We mostly focus on the message and crafting this very persuasive public service announcement or whatever. We do not think about the fact that what I find persuasive may backfire for somebody who does not use four-syllable words. They might think, “That is dumb. I do not get it. I am not listening.”

I am using this as a simple example, as though big words are the problem. They are not. It is more like, “you did not talk about my family at all in that persuasive message. You did not get that I care about tradition.” So if the message creators are all thinking one way, with the same level of education and the same background, they are going to be just persuading each other and they are going to be missing lots and lots and lots of people. So that is what we are getting at with trust:  it is embedded in our language. People are used to hearing a specific way of talking and that is how they want to be spoken to.

Are you going to study political speech directly or will it be broader than that?

It is really a dance. It is hard. What I understand the most is political differences. I do think that they are overdone a little bit, because they make flashy stories that talk about a Red America and a Blue America. I also do think that there is something real there. There are theoretical differences that we can use to craft messages that the left and the right would probably be more likely to listen to. So that is an easy place to start.

I would like to strip it away from just, “this is what Democrats want to hear” and “this is what the Republicans want to hear.” I would rather be in the variables that lie behind that. I want to do psychology and sociology and let the politics people do the politics. But I am also open to collaborating with those people.

So your research may include politics but you would like to see it get beyond that.

Yes. I would like to live in a world where politics was not the explainer. But right now, if I was trying to predict anybody’s behavior, I would just ask them their political orientation. I just cannot think of a better variable right now to predict people’s behavior. But I want to be talking about people not just on a left-to-right continuum.

Is the goal to find out how people are speaking differently or is the goal to find out how people can speak in a unified way? Is it to expose the problem or present a solution?

I think it is both. I would like to understand. There were all these books for a while where people went into rural America to understand Red America. I read four of those in a row one summer. That is part of the anthropology of the United States—how people are talking. We do not know because we get stuck in academia. We all start talking alike and thinking alike. We need to break out of that and understand the messages that people are giving to each other.

The applied aspect of this is persuasion, making people listen to a message. Like how should we message on climate change, right? Do we need different messages for every person? Your proof of concept is what kind of things do people need to hear and can we change their minds by speaking another language. For me, that is where trust comes in. I think people trust a way of being spoken with.

For example, I am from Vermont and I worked construction in Virginia when I was in my late teens, and I would speak differently depending on whether I was on the construction site with my Virginia friends or if I was home in Vermont. They are just really, really different worlds and I wanted to be trusted as one of them. So I modulated my language and my cadence and all that sort of stuff, and that is part of what we are talking about. But I really mean some of the psychological variables that differ by people.

You are talking about how psychological triggers impact different people, right?

Yes. We can show the exact same person doing the exact same behavior and liberals and conservatives will differ on how much they dislike that person based on what that person did. Some famous person does something and half of people say, “who cares, no big deal” and the other half says, “that is horrible.” That is part of what we are trying to get at. The exact same message might not actually mean anything in the mind of a more liberal person and it might be highly activating to somebody else. Some people are not even hearing it, whereas some people are saying, “they are talking to me.”

This seems very relevant right now.

Now that we are all trying to get information about whether we are supposed to go to the grocery store or have our kids in day camp, these issues are extremely important. They have been brought into relief by the fact that we are all trying to figure out what to do.

For example, Johns Hopkins has an amazing website that I go to every day because I believe in universities and government. But the guy who cleans pools said he does not know anybody who has COVID so he thinks it is a hoax. So that is very different. I am trusting Johns Hopkins and he is trusting people that he knows. I do not know which of us is exactly right and we might both be wrong but this issue of who we trust is really important—especially when they conflict. I can listen to my progressive mayor, my right-wing governor, Donald Trump or Anthony Fauci [director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases] and get competing pieces of information.

And the language these sources are using may determine which we listen too, right?

Right. For example, every company is putting out a Black Lives Matter statement. If you put the word “all” anywhere in that document, I am turning off because you are not supposed to say “All Lives Matter,” right? So there’s this hyper-vigilant approach to language. I think all of that is conveying, “should I trust you?” You can immediately gain and lose credibility in this culture now because people react to weaponized language. They identify quickly with one kind or the other.

Talk a bit about the applications here beyond politics.

I am a social psychologist who is supposed to believe in the power of the situation, but I really believe that people are really different on all these personality variables. A lot of things do co-vary with political orientation, but I do not want to have to rely on that all the time.

In some sense, everything is political because we live in a political system. We cannot really hide from it. I teach political psychology, and I always ask my undergrads at the beginning of the semester to tell me something that is not political. Then, I explain to them why it is political. I do not think they have come up with anything that is not, that cannot be construed as being political.

I want to be at a different level. There is something called the “need for cognition.” Some people really like to solve all the puzzles. Some people just want to know that something works. They do not care, right? Just give me the car. Do not even show me the engine. So, the message that we need to give people is really different based on their need for cognition. We can be at a level where it is more about the ways in which people differ, which may or may not correspond with politics. I would like to avoid directly talking about politics. There is such gravity around the political difference discussion. I do not want to get sucked into that vortex if I can help it.