The Psychology of Not

Words are extremely powerful. One word can be extremely powerful. We tend to throw out words without always thinking about how they are perceived. It can be interesting though to take a step back and think about what we are really trying to say and how people interpret the words we use. That leads us to last Friday’s survey:

Imagine you overhear two people talking about a NBA player.

Person A: “How is his shooting?”
Person B: “Good.”

What do you think the player’s shooting percentage (shots made/shots attempted) is?

Now some of you are probably saying “Wait. I don’t think I saw ‘Good’. I saw ‘bad’ or ‘not bad’ or ‘not good’.” That might be true. The point of the survey was more about psychology and linguistics than the shooting percentage of a basketball player. Thus, there were four variations to the survey. Depending on the condition you were randomly assigned to, you would have seen Person B respond with one of the following:

“Good.”

“Bad.”

“Not good.”

“Not bad.”

My primary interest was exploring the use of not. Think about it. Not. Short word. Arguably a simple word. Or is it? The word not is:

“used as a function word to make negative a group of words or a word”

Fairly simple idea but let’s first take a closer look at the above example:

How is his shooting? Good.
How is his shooting? Bad.

There is little doubt that good refers to a higher shooting percentage than bad. Let’s throw a not in there now:

How is his shooting? Not good.
How is his shooting? Not bad.

Now what? Presumably not bad refers to a higher shooting percentage than not good? Or does it? Again, fairly simple statements but the not adds a unique twist. Take a look at the four variations again:

How is his shooting? Good.

How is his shooting? Not good.
How is his shooting? Not bad.

How is his shooting? Bad.

Here is the challenge. How would you rank these in order of highest to lowest shooting percentage? Good and bad seem like the two endpoints but the two in the middle get a bit tricky. By a pure definitional use of not, the following should be true:

good = not bad

bad = not good

In reality though, and given our conversational assumptions, not bad probably isn’t interpreted as good. Similarly, bad is likely not interpreted equal to not good. Furthermore, is the difference between good and bad the same as not good and not bad? Therein lies the interesting question(s) to test. Given a large portion of my Twitter followers are interested in sports, using a basketball example seemed like an interesting context to test this idea.

RESULTS

Every person saw the same basketball scenario with the exception of the word Person B used to describe the player’s shooting. Person B either described the player’s shooting as “Good”, “Bad”, “Not good” or “Not bad”.  How did that affect estimates of the player’s shooting percentage?

SHOOTING PERCENTAGE BY TERM

What do you notice? There is a much bigger difference between good and bad than not good and not bad. The difference between a players shooting being described as “good” and “bad” was 14% but the difference between “not good” and “not bad” was only 4%. Why? From a linguistics and psychology standpoint, adding “not” results in the communication being interpreted  differently. This particular study illustrates the unique nature of words, such as not, and their affect on perceptions.

What might play a role?

Certainty and confidence. Someone describing a player’s shooting as “good” sounds much more certain and confident than someone saying “not bad”. In this context, the use of “not” almost translates to “average” or somewhere in between “good” and “bad”.

Conversational norms. Why would a person even use the word “not” when they could describe the shooting as “good” or “bad”?

Context and knowledge. Were we talking about two point shooting, three-point shooting, relative to what, etc?

So what is the takeaway? I wouldn’t make household changes based on one study BUT it is important to carefully consider the words that you use in any scenario. Down to the individual word. For example, in a business scenario, is the product easy to setup or is it not difficult to setup? (Think about it, IKEA.) Is an employee bad at something or are they not goodThere are a bunch of other ways in which a simple word such as not can affect perceptions. Can you think of any others? Let me know in the comments. The goal of these posts is to get as many people involved as possible to debate, discuss, and generate new ideas. As far as I am concerned there is not a dumb answer, question or idea. If your thought starts with “This is might be dumb but…” then write it down and submit it anyways!

P.S. If you’re curious, according to Basketball Reference, the league wide shooting percentage this season is 45%. The league wide three-point percentage is 35% while the two point percentage is 49%.

P.P.S. I’m pretty fired up about the next research idea/question I have. If you want to participate, I’ll be sending out the survey link on Friday. If you want to make sure you don’t miss it, be sure to sign up for my email newsletter and follow me on Twitter (although eventually I may only send out the link via email).

This post is the beginning of a series that includes my random thoughts and musings. I do not claim to be the first person to think of these things or deny that others have done research on them. I am simply discussing interesting marketing/psychology/linguistic topics that come to mind. I welcome any criticism, discussion, or new ideas!

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