The power of words has long been extolled, but do they influence people so much to the point where these people exhibit behavior similar to the words they’re hearing? A recent collaborative study tested this hypothesis by exposing people to alcohol-related terms for a fraction of a second, and looking to see if there was resulting aggressive behavior, which is often associated with alcohol consumption. The experiments and their results will be published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

The effects of words were tested with two experiments. The first experiment involved priming participants to alcohol related words and observing their reactions to ambiguous provocation, but not following obvious provocation or no provocation at all. Participants were given a controversial topic to write an essay on. Then they were told that another participant (imaginary, of course) would be assessing them. After this, the participants were then split into two groups, with one group being exposed to alcohol-related terms like whiskey, beer, and vodka, for less than one-tenth of a second, and the other to non-alcohol terms like coffee, milk, and water.

Following exposure to the sets of words, some of the participants were given their assessments, with descriptions of their essays containing hostile remarks like "This is one of the worst essays I have ever read." The evaluation given to participants in the ambiguous provocation condition said, "I don't even know where to begin." And a third control group of participants did not receive an evaluation.

Before gauging their responses, the participants were asked to submerge their hands in a bucket of ice-cold water. They were then asked for how long they would like the evaluator of their essay to submerge his or her hand in ice-cold water. This so-called cold pressor task, according to researcher Bill Pederson, “is often used in research on pain tolerance, which involves people submerging their hand in a bucket of ice-cold water for a number of seconds. If you've ever gone searching in the cooler for a drink once the ice has started to melt you've probably experienced this feeling; it can really hurt if you leave your hand in for more than a few seconds … Because participants know how painful this is, we can say that their recommendation represents their level of aggression toward the other person."

The responses of the participants were as follows: Upon receiving obviously hostile feedback, participants primed with both alcohol- and non-alcohol-related terms showed high levels of aggression. However, when the feedback was ambiguous, alcohol-primed participants were much more aggressive than non-alcohol-primed participants. The experiment confirmed that simple exposure to alcohol-related words induces aggressive thoughts against seemingly mild events.

In the second experiment, the researchers found that although the words induced aggressive behavior, their effect was relatively brief, lessening within seven minutes and disappearing within 15 minutes of exposure to alcohol-related words. They confirmed in this study that priming made a person seem more hostile than they really were.

Based on the two experiments, the researchers concluded that aggression stemming from exposure to alcohol-related words is connected to alcohol-related thoughts, which are stored in long-term memory.

Our brain often sees a connection between alcohol and violence. This may be due to personal experience or deep-rooted beliefs. So, even an exposure to alcohol-related words turns on aggression, particularly when the other person's motives are unclear. This experiment gives a new perspective to earlier studies of alcohol-related violence and shows that such a response can occur subconsciously without consumption of alcohol.

Source: Pederson W, Vasquez E, Bartholow B, Grosvenor M, Truong A. Are You Insulting Me? Exposure to Alcohol Primes Increases Aggression Following Ambiguous Provocation. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 2014.