Words And Their Resonance — From Psycho-Lexical Analysis to Text-Analysis and Social-Media Mining

We’ve come a long way since Genesis 1.1. (“In the beginning was the word.”) Today, there are infinitely more things, actions, and conditions than there are specific words to denote them.

This is an obvious fact. But unless you have spent hours at a stretch searching for just the right word, or diligently coaxing various parts of speech to bend to your authorial wishes, you may not be as intimately aware of the situation.

A great deal of sensitivity, and empathy, is required. Not for the reader or listener. Forget about them for a moment. For the word. Seriously, you gotta love ‘em. Because there are far fewer words than things, actions, and conditions, each word typically has to represent more than just one thing. And that can prove a lot to bear.

Take the word run. With over 600 different meanings, it has the longest entry in the Oxford English Dictionary. Talk about multi-tasking! Bear is another word that, well, bears a lot. You can fill up half a page or more with its possible meanings, from the burly mammal, to the crazy truck driver that was bearing down on you, to the left turns you were supposed to bear before you got lost, to the way you bear yourself when you walk into a meeting.

One of the reasons programming natural language into AI systems so they appear to make sense is the difficulty in creating routines to determine the precise meaning of a word when there are numerous definitions to consider. It is of course the context of the word in a sentence that ultimately reveals its intended meaning. But that does not always work out as planned, even in person-to-person communications, let alone machine intervention.

The unsettling truth is that when meaning is let loose in the world unintended consequences happen. Things can get in a muddle, or in a pickle. (Imagine a computer trying to decipher that sentence.) The gem-like clarity you thought you were conveying can be easily misunderstood or misinterpreted. That’s also because words — which are already saddled with multiple meanings — can conjure up different things for different people based on the associations they may have. Have you ever said something to a friend or partner and were surprised when they took offense, even when you thought you were being utterly circumspect in your language? If so, you get the point.

In the early days of its development, psychologists like Galton, Freud and Jung cued in on this fact; i.e. the highly individualized responses people have to words. Because the same words can conjure up different things in people’s minds, they realized words could serve as a window on a person’s subconscious, or even their intelligence.

Most people know how word-association works. A subject is given a stimulus word, say “black,” and asked to respond quickly with the first word that pops into their mind. Depending on the answer to as many as 100 words, and the reaction time between the stimulus and the response, a skilled psychologist could formulate a picture of the patient’s underlying emotional issues.

These kinds of assessments may sound more like a game than a legitimate diagnostic tool. But the reality that was validated by this exploration is the unique and intimate relationship people have with words.

The most ambitious study in psycho-lexical analysis was undertaken in the 1930’s by Gordon Allport and Henry Odbert — two American psychologists. The goal was to survey the entire English lexicon (using Webster’s New International Dictionary as the source) and to arrive at a complete panoply of words that are descriptive of behavior and personality. They considered thousands of terms that denote moods, feelings, habits, instincts, judgments, emotions, qualities, dispositions and capacities. Out of approximately 400,000 words, they selected 17,953  — about 4.5%.

If you accept the English lexicon as a fair reflection of the human condition, then, according to Allport and Odbert, they uncovered enough “problems” to keep psychologists busy “for a life-time.” More importantly, however, their analysis provided the groundwork for formulating a handful of key designations that describe stable, mental structures. Many of these categories, which also served as new clinical descriptions, are still recognized as playing a distinctive role in the formation of personality. Their work also set the stage for employing some of the same factor-analytic techniques used today in medicine and the social sciences.

The point I want to underscore in this brief summary is how words have a uniquely personal dimension, as well a shared, universal one, without which people could not communicate. In light of social-media mining, website optimization, and the interest companies have in gauging public sentiment, the art and science of text-analysis is an area marketers are starting to pay more attention to.

In our own research, we have found the social-media space to be a perfect laboratory for exploring the relationship between words and how people use them. Motivational Styles provides a great deal of insight into the underlying reasons why consumers express certain feelings and attitudes. This insight goes way beyond the standard favorable or unfavorable evaluation that most paid observers of social-media try to deduce.

Similarly, because the underlying mental constructs that drive preferences can be inferred through words and word-usage, the same motivational insight may be used in text-mining and selecting key-words to improve analysis and website optimization. As shown in the following examples, prominent themes, terms, and word-clusters will (9.5 times out of 10) skew to one of four Motivational Styles, depending on the content, product, or service.

The Key: Seeing Perception as a Prism

Among the criteria that defines Motivational Styles is the manner in which people generally ‘think’ about their world. But — make no mistake. We’re not claiming omniscience. It’s the style of thinking and perceiving that is of interest. This insight is the result of taking into account nearly 7,000 variables to arrive at common, measurable traits that play a determinative role in behavior and allow us to score the U.S. population.

Like a prism that filters light in identifiable ways, this inherent point of view lends a coherent belief system and continuity to one’s experience. As a result, the different Motivational Styles speak a different language, such that words themselves have a different import and significance. This has been borne out in the instantaneous and unfiltered world of social media, just as it is in the more traditional and slower-moving sales and customer-service realms.

Of the four Motivational Styles, half tend to be more concrete in their thinking, while the other half tend to be more abstract. You can see from the short comparison which follows how one’s frame-of-mind can create a kind of unconscious bias that prepares an individual to resonate more emphatically with some words and ideas versus others. You can perhaps also see how the presentation of an idea can make a huge difference in whether it will be understood and accepted, versus being ignored or rejected. This is the strategic principle upon which effective product messaging should be designed.


Shapers & Sustainers             Advocates & Discerners

(More Concrete)                         (More Abstract)

Resonate more with:

Realities                                  Possibilities
Causal Connections              Acausal (or meaningful) Connections
Finite                                       Infinite
Sequential                              Leaps
Places                                      Context
Goals                                       Process
Absolutes                               Relatives
Literal                                     Metaphoric
Present                                   Future

Targeting one’s audience with an understanding of how they are predisposed to view the world gives marketers a better chance of delivering the right messages, and breaking through the perceptual walls that naturally filter out anything that is deemed unimportant.

Here is another illustration of the principle:  The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck is considered one of the top best-self books of all time. Who is more likely to read self-help books? We know from our own proprietary research that Advocates as a group are more interested in self-improvement and self-awareness than other Motivational Styles. Now, take a look at Google’s word cloud for The Road Less Traveled and see what comes up:

The Road Less Traveled.jpgBlessings, believing, consciousness, emotions, ethics, “different drum,” faith, feeling, grace, healing, prayer, serendipity, soul, spiritual growth, therapy, truth, voice — to someone familiar with the principles of Motivational Styles, these words and themes immediately reveal an Advocate’s mindset. This does not mean other Motivational Styles would not be interested in the book. But it does show, with a very high degree of confidence, who represents the best audience for the book — and therefore where a marketer should invest their promotional dollars.

Let’s understand that words and expressions are the main vehicles that carry the messages consumers hear. Sure, that’s obvious. But, when you peel back the curtain, you find that people respond differently based on their Motivational Style, which stand out in great relief among a broad population. The question is, “Will your words resonate?” And please be advised, there is no latitude or middle ground. Messages hit the mark or they don’t.

Resonance is an exacting phenomenon. It demands an intelligent use of language. We don’t usually think of marketing as a science demanding uncompromising precision. But in this sense, it does. They (i.e. your audience) will love you, or they will love you not. Understanding how words resonate among the different Motivational Styles gives you some leverage in that equation.

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