Understanding mental “associations”

A single word can create a chain reaction of ideas that can help—or hurt—your cause

"Association" lies at the heart of how we influence people’s thinking through communication. Words and images evoke ideas, which “trigger many other ideas, in a spreading cascade of activity in your brain," as explained in "Thinking, Fast and Slow" by Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman. Striving to make sense of incoming information, our brains immediately draw connections among ideas, experiences and feelings stored in memory.

Associations activated through words can heavily influence how people perceive and react to an idea. Communicators must be aware of this powerful effect and select language carefully. It kicks in with the first word your audience sees or hears. The words you use can open people’s minds to your message—or they can raise mental obstacles that work against you.

The Hattaway team found this insight to be extremely powerful in our work to change the national dialogue about the government’s role in fighting poverty in America. When describing people who benefit from anti-poverty programs, experts and advocates often label them with terms such as “poor,” “vulnerable” or “marginalized.”

Starting a conversation by labeling people with negative words actually raises obstacles to public support. Unfortunately, nearly 6 out of 10 Americans associated the word “poor” with “lazy” in the World Values Survey. Many go on to assume the “poor” aren’t trying to help themselves. That idea makes it harder for people to support government programs that help people in poverty—a powerful example of a negative association that hurts the cause.

Our research found that people were willing to support government action against poverty when they perceived the people served by those programs as taking initiative to change their lives. We recommended that advocates use action-oriented words and phrases like “working,” “striving” or “struggling” to get ahead.

In qualitative research, these types of action verbs created positive associations that led listeners to respect and empathize with people trying to lift their families out of poverty. These types of words helped us craft messages that persuaded 7 out of 10 respondents in a national survey to support government programs that help people achieve financial security.

Moreover, a descriptor like “hard-working” paints a more accurate picture of most people in poverty. Nine out of 10 Americans who receive government benefits actually have jobs—or can’t work because they are elderly or disabled.

So the first step in testing a message is to understand the connections people create upon hearing or seeing key words. You can then experiment with different words to see which terms activate the appropriate associations.

Our team was stunned to see the power of associations in a Winning Words focus group we conducted to test narratives about Muslims living in America. A group of foundations interested in promoting religious tolerance asked for our help in crafting messages to counter anti-Muslim hate and fear-mongering.

Using a conventional method of labeling a minority group in America, we first explored associations with the term “Muslim-American.” Participants responded with words and ideas such as, “foreign,” “more traditional,” “religious” and “Arab.”

Then we flipped the words in the moniker and asked what thoughts came to mind when participants saw the term “American Muslim.” The same group of people expressed very different reactions, saying things like “came to America for a better life,” “follow religion but not as strictly” and “contribute to society.”

These reactions showed the critical importance of the first word in the label—and the power of the word “American.” These ideas encourage more positive feelings, and help to counter negative portrayals and perceptions of American Muslims.

This insight informed an ad that we created to demonstrate that American Muslims make important contributions to our society. The print ad showed pictures of military service members who had been killed in the line of duty, along with the headline: “They died defending our freedom. They are American Muslims.”