I was thinking back recently on a trip that I took to Europe. The trip went through Pescara, Italy and Sofia Bulgaria. In Pescara, I had some really great meals. After eating a particularly delicious ravioli, it might make sense to say, “Wow, the food in Italy is fantastic.” But, if I had eaten a disappointing slice of pizza (which never happened), I might have said, “This slice of pizza is disappointing.” On the other hand, the food in Bulgaria was passable at best, leading me to conclude that the food in Bulgaria is disappointing. One of the lunches was quite good, though, and so I might be tempted to comment that this particular meal was enjoyable.
In these examples, when the quality of the food was consistent with my overall belief, then I used more abstract language (talking about the food overall), but when it was inconsistent with my belief, then I used more specific language (talking about just that meal).
It is quite common to change how abstractly you speak based on the consistency of your experience with your attitudes. Gun Semin and Klaus Fiedler noted that we tend to talk about people this way in a 1988 paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. When someone you like gets angry, you are likely to describe what happened as yelling at someone. When someone you don’t like gets angry, you label them as aggressive.
A paper in the August, 2010 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research by Gaby Schellekens, Peeter Verlegh, and Ale Smidts extended this observation to products. They had people describe products. For example, in one study, people try out either Bic pens (which people tend to think of as cheap and low quality) or Parker pens (which people tend to think of as expensive and high quality). The pens were manipulated so that they did not work. Then, they had to pick a statement that best described their feeling about the pen. For the Bic pen, people selected abstract statements (like “This Bic pen is bad.”). For the Parker pen, people selected more specific statements (like “This Parker pen would not write.”). In other studies, the authors looked at the descriptions people gave spontaneously both for good aspects of products and bad ones.
The authors then extended this work in an interesting way. These descriptions affected people who heard them as well. People who heard an abstract positive description (“This pen is great.”) were more likely to say that they would buy one than people who heard a specific positive description (“This pen writes well.”). People who heard an abstract negative description (“This pen is awful.”) were less likely to say that they would buy one than people who heard a specific negative description (“This pen writes badly.”).
This work is important, because the people who describe products choose the abstractness of what they say unconsciously. That is, they are not specifically trying to be persuasive when they use this language. Yet, these abstract statements are treated as more persuasive (either positively or negatively) than specific statements. Furthermore, you are not likely to notice how abstractly things are being described to you. So, the language that is used to describe things can have an impact on your attitudes without your awareness of where that attitude is coming from.