Last updated: What’s in a name? More than you might think

What’s in a name? More than you might think


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Just hearing the words “Wall Street” is enough to make you act selfishly. So what does that mean for the ways we label what we do?

I stumbled across an article recently that sent me on a fascinating journey. It was a piece in The Atlantic titled “These Two Words Will Make You More Selfish”. What surprised me most is that it actually wasn’t a joke headline. It really works. And the words were pretty innocuous: Wall Street.

It actually comes from research carried out on students at Stanford University, where a twist was put on the Prisoner’s Dilemma.

Fans of game theory will know that this is the one that imagines two players have been caught getting up to all sorts of mischief by police. Each ‘suspect’ goes in a different cell and is told that if they grass on their buddy they’ll get a deal – but their mate will get the full sentence.

If neither of them says anything, then they’ll both get off scot free, but it’s a bit of a risk because if they get it wrong and their partner lands them in the proverbial, or if they both betray each other, then they end up doing time. So to rat or not to rat? That is the question. It tests how people work together.

But in this particular study, which used financial incentives instead of the threat of jail, half the participants were told it was called “Community Game” and the other half that they were playing “Wall Street Game”.

That was the only difference between the two groups, but the results were incredible. 67% of the students cooperated when they were playing “Community Game”, but only 33% did when they were told the game was called “Wall Street”.

And even though they’d get more money together if they cooperated, in the end it came down to maximizing relative returns. In other words it wasn’t about getting as much as possible, what really mattered was getting more than their partner. All this, just from changing the label on the game.

“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” Juliet tells Romeo in our favorite balcony scene. I hate to be the bearer of bad tidings, but she’s wrong.

Another, more recent study found that in a face-to-face negotiation, participants would choose an outcome that was worse for them if it meant agreement rather than impasse (perhaps this should be named the law of “Fine If It Means You’ll Leave Me Alone”).

The interesting label here is that even if the outcome was significantly worse, if you called it “Agreement” rather than “Option A”, people would go for it. And if you called it “Impasse” instead of “Option B”, they’d be far more likely to avoid it.

It’s hard not to take the mickey out of shows like The Apprentice when the teams call themselves things like“Alpha Squad” and “Winners”, but I can see why people unashamedly label themselves as successes.

The risk of course is that this sort of attempt at authenticity simply comes across as vulgar; the outer label for success changes meaning in the same way Wall Street has. Ultimately, you need to stand for something real. To back up what you say with substance. But appreciating the power of the label – and how it can frame a desired outcome – is no bad thing.

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