Using language to ‘unlock past emotions’

Ajay Satpute

Imagine having to give a wedding speech tomorrow. How would you feel? Maybe excited, but if you’re more like me, you probably feel a sense of dread. I remember my speech at my sister’s wedding. Having no clue what to say, I thought listlessly about what the key ingredients were supposed to be. Something funny but not humiliating, something touching but not cheesy, and some warm wishes but nothing cliché. And ideally, something memorable. It ought to be fun I suppose, but it felt more like anticipating an electrical shock.

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Recent research in social psychology suggests that part of making a speech count could be as simple as picking the right verbs. The study, which was conducted by Professor William Hart at the University of Alabama, found that a subtle shift in language from using the past tense (e.g. “I walked down the aisle”) to using the imperfect past tense (e.g. “I was walking down the aisle”) induced greater pleasant feelings for recounting positive emotional experiences, or unpleasant feelings for recounting negative emotional experiences. These effects occurred both for people’s personal emotional memories (Experiments 1 and 3b), such as that time when my older sister stood up for me on the playground, and also for emotional memories created in the laboratory (Experiments 2 and 3a). Critically, the strength of his results was substantial (e.g., Cohen’s D = .69, Experiment 1), suggesting that using imperfect past tenses for ‘unlocking past emotions’ may have real value in everyday life. Professor Hart also found that when people used the imperfect past tense, they tended to have more detailed memories and that this could explain why they had stronger feelings.

Certainly, Hart’s findings raise several questions for psychologists about how language relates to recounting emotional experiences. One can readily surmise about the implications of these findings in therapy setting. Is it better for the therapeutic process to recount traumatic events using imperfect tenses that enhance memory and amplify feelings, or past tenses that reduce them? Perhaps when recounting the day events with your partner, merely starting with “I was eating lunch…” rather than “I ate lunch” might lead to story with a little more humor or a little more empathy, and could promote a closer relationship. In any case, the next time you find yourself telling stories while giving a wedding speech or say, serving on the witness stand, playing poker, or teaching a life lesson, select your words—or verbs—carefully, depending of course on whether you want to inspire laughter and tears, or prevent them.