“In words are seen the state of mind and character and disposition of the speaker.”
We have always known the power of words. They connect us, explain us, teach us, and define us. Our words really do reveal ourselves.
But what does that mean?
When we think about what makes people different from one another, we often think about someone’s disposition or character. We think of it as stable, unchanging, and straightforward, as comprised of qualities or attributes inherent to them.
That way of thinking about people is essentially personality. We can deconstruct this way of thinking about personality as a collection of traits -- internal factors that make people who they are. We’ll say things like, she’s adventurous, he’s friendly, she’s an analytical thinker, he’s agreeable. A trait can be thought of as a characteristic or quality that is consistent, stable, and long-lasting, often existing independent of a person’s immediate situation.
For example, we’ve all heard someone described as disagreeable, surly, or as “having a short fuse.” This creates the image of person who is constantly grumpy or angry, bringing hostility and aggression into every situation. A person described this way is thought to react to everything with anger, regardless of whether or not the situation calls for it.
On the other hand, state of mind is not always something we think of when we talk about who a person is. States are generally thought of as less stable over time, changing with a person’s environment and circumstances. They can be seen as temporary characteristics or qualities, caused by external factors, dependent on a person’s immediate situation but influenced by previous experience.
For example, a person may be disagreeable or surly only in a particular circumstance or when interacting with a particular person. A particular person may be prone to interrupting or contradicting them, which may frustrate them, bringing out that state of surliness, but they may be pleasant and cheerful with other people.
Why Does it Matter?
The practical difference between viewing a person’s surliness as a state and viewing it as a trait is clear. If you know your coworker is frustrated because they are being interrupted, you can change that situation by interrupting less and apologizing when you do; if you believe a coworker is naturally frustrated and surly all the time, you are unlikely to change your own behaviour toward them.
But we are not inclined to see these solutions on our own, thanks to one of humanity’s well-known biases: the Fundamental Attribution Error. This is the concept that we interpret our own behaviour as being the result of external factors -- states, while in contrast we interpret others’ behaviour as being the result of internal factors that represent their unchanging character -- traits.
While more recent studies have shown that this bias can be overcome, they have also uncovered that we more often attribute others’ negative behaviours, but also our own positive behaviours, to internal factors. That is, we tend to view our own positive actions and others’ negative actions as being caused by traits, not states.
It’s easy to see why this is problematic. By this thought process, someone who is blocking your path to exit the subway is doing so because they are an inconsiderate person, but you blocking the door to the subway are doing so because you’re so stressed over work that you didn’t notice someone trying to exit the train. When someone else is blocking your way, you might shove or bump or grumble at them, but when you do it you expect others to cut you some slack.
These issues extend to the workplace too, of course. The potential for negative interactions and misunderstandings is clear, but there’s yet another problem with this type of bias. People are less likely to display this trait vs. state attribution bias when it comes to their friends, family members, and others they see as part of their social group, and more likely to apply display this bias with those who are socially more distant from them.
So will you write a better, less biased performance review for a colleague you know well than for a new employee? Will this also apply to people with different cultural backgrounds from your own? To people whose gender is different from yours?
And what does that mean for those people for whom your attribution bias is stronger? What happens when this bias is applied over and over by everyone throughout the population, reinforcing existing patterns within society as a whole?
Traits as psychology
A fundamental problem with being focused on traits is that if we think of others’ negative behaviours as being caused by unchangeable, internally-created traits, then we run the risk of believing that those people can’t change, and therefore that situations can’t be improved.
And that just isn’t true.
People can -- and do -- change. We know that mental health issues such as depression or anxiety are often viewed as traits, when in reality these issues can be treated, and their accompanying mental states altered. For example, a typical PTSD symptom is that a heightened stress response can be induced by a normal, completely safe event that is reminiscent of aspects of the previous trauma. This overactive stress state is normal after a trauma, and in the case of PTSD can linger for many years -- but it can be changed with treatment and time.
But this isn’t just about mental health, either: even the famous Big Five personality traits -- Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism -- are not always stable over time.
Nothing is sacred here; if you can’t be sure that any trait will be stable, there’s no reason to treat them as such. It is much more realistic to view human psychology in terms of changeable states, rather than rigid traits -- though of course some states will be more long-lasting than others.
And not only is a states-oriented view more accurate, but it also allows us to see people-problems as things we can actually fix. It gives us the understanding that it’s possible to change for the better.
The Importance of Language
So where does this understanding begin?
When we study people’s language, it tells us a great deal about their psychological states at the time of writing. For example, individuals experiencing depression are much more likely to use higher rates of first-person singular pronouns like “me” and “I” -- a reflection of their withdrawn, inward-focused, depressive state.
Likewise, studying people’s language over time can tell us whether their states are changing. The narratives of trauma survivors with more cognitive processing words were associated with reduction of PTSD symptoms, reflective of the improvement in their mental health through cognitive processing of the trauma.
This is highly applicable to the workplace; if your employees are experiencing significant stress, it will be evident in their language. But it is also something you can change. Implement workplace well-being strategies, and then sample your employees’ language again. If you see an improvement in the language -- fewer linguistic indicators of stress and anxiety -- then you have a measure of whether your strategies have worked.
These are just a few examples, and this is just the beginning of understanding psychology through states instead of through traits. There is a world of possibilities for workplace well-being available by focusing on states. All you have to do is change your state of mind.