Verb tense is more important than you may think, especially in how you form or perceive intention in a narrative. In recent research studied in Psychological Science, William Hart of the University of Alabama states that “when you describe somebody’s actions in terms of what they’re ‘doing,’ that action is way more vivid in [a reader’s] mind.” Subsequently, when action is imagined vividly, greater intention is associated with it.
Hart and Dolores Albarracín of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign sought to apply these findings to a situation where this mental bias could have a grave impact – a court case. Study volunteers were asked to take the perspective of a judge reading a criminal report. Those who read that the defendant “was firing gun shots” believed a more harmful intent of the defendant than those who read that he “fired gun shots”.
Hart describes it as “startling” that such a simple grammatical difference carries such strong connotations within our mind. Our ability to perceive the intentions of others is critical to our co-existence; without knowledge of how language influences thought we may come to false conclusions. In the court of law, this could mean the difference between a guilty and innocent verdict.
Hart, W., & Albarracín, D. (2011). Learning about what others were doing: verb aspect and attributions of mundane and criminal intent for past actions. Psychological science: APS, 22 (2), 261-6
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