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EASP – European Association of Social Psychology

Seedcorn Grant Report by Magdalena Formanowicz

02.09.2017, by Sibylle Classen in grant report

University of Bern, Switzerland; Project: In Search of the Social Side of Grammar

Language is inextricably linked to the subject matter of humanities and social sciences studies; moreover, it is embedded in most of the measurement instruments that these sciences use. Even though the profound role of language is now rarely questioned (Fiedler, 2008; Holtgraves & Kashima, 2008), there are several areas in which the link between language and the construction of social reality has not been considered. To address one such uncharted territory, we formed an assumption that verbs (as opposed to adjectives and nouns) are a linguistic category that conveys social information above and beyond the specific semantic content and that these meta-semantic effects influence people’s cognitive processes (Formanowicz, Roessel, Suitner & Maass, 2017). In particular, we claimed that verbs imply dynamic properties that other grammatical categories (nouns and adjectives) lack, making them the preferred syntactic device to convey activity—and by extension—agency, a basic dimension of human perception that is related to goal achievement (for an overview, see Abele & Wojciszke, 2014).

We found compelling evidence for this idea in four studies (Formanowicz, et al., 2017) – an extensive corpora analysis (focusing on language production) and three experiments (focusing on language reception). However due to the focus on meta-semantic effects – that is the pure effects of grammatical categories we only used pseudo-words in our experimental studies so that the results are not biased by the meaning of the words. Therefore, within the EASP Seedcorn grant, we found it necessary to establish whether the role of verbs in evoking agency generalizes to the real words usage.

The main assumption behind the studies, is that as verbs signal agency, they should lead to effects that are similar to those of the agency inductions used in previous studies (Abele & Wojciszke, 2014) and therefore affect behavioral tendencies of people. In particular, we hypothesize that the perception of verbs in slogans prompts action and behavioral choices (agency), thus affecting the efficiency of the slogans and consequently the behavioral reactions of participants. We examined this hypothesis in three studies.

Study 1 was an archival analysis of Kickstarter corpora (for the detailed description of the corpora see Pietraszkiewicz, Soppe & Formanowicz, in press). In a nutshell, Kickstarter is currently the most popular platform for crowdfunding entrepreneurs who use it to advertise their projects and gather the funding. To attract funding, the creator must register on the platform and prepare a webpage for the project – that usually involves a project description. To analyze those descriptions, we amended the IT tool used in Pietraszkiewicz et al. (in press) by employing the Penn Treebank Part-of- Speech (POS) tagger. This update allowed us to quantify number of verbs, adjectives and nouns used in each project, and relate those measures to the social campaigns outcome. The results of this analysis revealed a positive effect of the verbs usage on the campaign success.

Studies 2 and 3 were experiments. Participants evaluated short basic slogans, which have the potential to be utilized in a social campaign of a non-governmental organization dealing with climate change. Slogans used either verbs or adjectives (e.g. ‘we help/act’ or ‘we are helpful/active’). Participants evaluated the conveyed sense of agency and communion and the potential success of the slogans. All studies measured additionally, the engagement in climate issues, study 3 also involved measures of social status (Whillans, Caruso, & Dunn, 2017). 
Study 2 revealed that verbs in comparison to adjectives were seen as more agentic, which in turn affected the potential success of the campaigns. This effect was most pronounced among participants declaring themselves as being interested in issues of climate change. In Study 3, we replicated the basic effect of verbs as more agentic than adjectives. However, the agency of verbs did not translate to campaigns’ success. One of the reasons that might have contributed to the results of Study 3, was the fact that issues of climate change were at the time of study a salient topic in a public discourse, following the US exit from Paris agreement. This debate polarized the US society and our sample accordingly, and possibly made the subtle language manipulation less visible. Given this outcome, we are currently replicating studies 2-3 in a more generic setting of a NGO, without providing details of that organization.

Overall, the studies conducted within the EASP Seedcorn funding, yielded support to our core assumption about the perceived agency of verbs in comparison to adjectives. Moreover, we have identified that the agency of verbs may affect the successfulness of the social campaigns under specific circumstances. The outcomes of the conducted studies guided the design of the forth study that is currently operating and are a basis of a manuscript under preparation.

The EASP Seedcorn grant allowed not only to carry out the aforementioned studies, but also to strengthen and extend my collaboration network. Within the scope of the funding we have conducted two meetings of the involved researchers: Magda Formanowicz (the principal investigator), Anne Maass, Caterina Suitner (Meeting 1 and 2) and Janin Roessel (Meeting 2). During the first meeting, based on the overview of the state-of-the art regarding the role of grammatical categories in making social inferences, we have modified the initial plan of conducting two studies each aiming at a different research direction and decided to focus on one research line described previously. The second team meeting was also an opportunity to organize a small group conference at the University of Padova, to gather scholars with similar research interests. Following this meeting, several collaborations initiatives were instigated. One of such initiatives evolved into a grant proposal submitted in June 2016 to the Polish National Science Centre.


  • Abele, A. E., & Wojciszke, B. (2014). Communal and agentic content in social cognition: A dual perspective model . Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 50, 195–255.
  • Fiedler, K. (2008). Language: A toolbox for sharing and influencing social reality. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 3, 38–47. doi: 10.1111/j.1745-6916.2008.00060.x
  • Formanowicz, M., Roessel, J., Suitner, C., & Maass, A. (2017). Verbs as Linguistic Markers of Agency – The Social Side of Grammar. European Journal of Social Psychology. doi: 10.1002/ejsp.2231.
  • Holtgraves, T. M., & Kashima, Y. (2008). Language, meaning, and social cognition. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 12, 73–94. doi:10.1177/1088868307309605.
  • Pietraszkiewicz, A., Soppe, B., & Formanowicz, M. (in press) Go Pro Bono: Prosocial Language as a Success Factor in Crowdfunding. Social Psychology.
  • Whillans, A. V., Caruso, E. M., & Dunn, E. W. (2017). Both selfishness and selflessness start with the self: How wealth shapes responses to charitable appeals. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 70, 242– 250. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2016.11.009.