When do words speak louder than actions?

University of Michigan

Far from pointless prattling, a new study demonstrates communication can mitigate negative effects of power asymmetry on cooperation.


Shirli Kopelman

Shirli Kopelman

“Interestingly, our research leads us to question assumptions behind sayings, such as ‘actions speak louder than words,'” said Shirli Kopelman, co-author of the study and ​​a leading researcher, expert and educator in the field of negotiations at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business.

Kopelman’s co-authors in the study, published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, are Jennifer Dannals of Dartmouth College, Eliran Halali of Bar-Ilan University, Israel, and Nir Halevy of Stanford University. The study focused on how low-power group members responded to moves of the person in high power.

Kopelman discusses this research, particularly what it reveals about actions and words of people in positions of power, and which speaks louder.

Your research turns some conventional wisdom on its head, namely that actions speak louder than words. What surprised or jumped out the most from the study?

According to conventional wisdom, when a person says one thing but does another, more weight should be given to the action. This is based on an assumption that the behavior more accurately reflects the person’s motivations and goals. In such situations, we discount words as “lip service.” We are all too familiar with empty promises, and assume we can count only on people who deliver through behavioral action. However, this interpretation of inconsistency, between what one says and what one does, is based on a belief that there is freedom of choice with respect to one’s words and one’s actions.

Our research focuses on situations where people’s behavior is constrained through no fault of their own, and compares when they can or cannot speak. When the system prevents the high power player from contributing behaviorally, yet enables communication, we find that words mitigate the impact of selfish behavior: Despite the selfish behavior of those with power, low power members contribute to the group. In these situations, given the situational constraint on behavior, words speak louder than actions.

How might this play out outside the research setting?

There are many situations where those who have power are not able to immediately help those in need of resources. But just because the power holder is not helping at the moment, does not mean they will not help in the future. They may be constrained at the moment, for one reason or another. Power may be reflected by financial or nonfinancial resources.

Imagine spending a few hours in the waiting room of a hospital’s emergency room. You only need a few minutes of medical attention. The medical team has the knowledge, tools and medications to treat your cut and send you home on a path of healing. And yet, you are waiting. And waiting. And they are not helping you. Do they not care? Are they disorganized? Do they have enough staff? Or perhaps the system is working perfectly well and they are simply helping urgent life-threatening conditions first.

How you interpret the situation matters. And what they say can guide your attributions and shape how you feel and act. If nobody speaks to you while you continue to wait for hours, negative judgments may surface; you might even begin writing a letter of complaint in your head to help pass the time, and your frustration may be contagious to others sitting around you.

However, while not being able to help you at the moment (constrained by urgent cases), a person from the team might stop by for a few seconds and explain why it is turning out to be such a long wait today. In a classic tit-for-tat move, à la Anatol Rapoport, these words signal cooperation. Hearing this message assures you that you will be attended to professionally, eventually.

Rather than festering in frustration, you might be motivated to contribute to the group of people in the waiting room by empathically listening and talking to others or compassionately helping another family. Thus, during this waiting period, words of those with resources speak louder than their actions or inactions; and they have the power to generate reciprocal cooperation that benefits everyone.

Is there anything else you’d like to add on the topic of power?

Consider the power of emotions. Saying “actions speak louder than words” is missing this important factor in human interactions. Our emotions, and the emotions we generate in others, have power. Specifically, positive and negative emotions can serve as a resource to bring people together and be resourceful.

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