In our newly released video, Santa’s Elf holds out two tantalizing foil-wrapped chocolate Christmas bears to Emma and Alex. One chocolate bear is a wonderfully chubby eight inches tall. The other is tiny—the size and girth of a clothespin. “Sorry,” the Elf says, “we only have one big bear left.” He turns to Emma, the subject child: “Here, you choose—which do you want?” Will Emma take the big one and stiff Alex, or in the spirit of the season, will she decide it’s more blessed to give than to receive?
Words matter. A lot. The words you choose to frame a problem powerfully influence the way you and others feel about it.
For example, if Ethan takes a cupcake without asking, a parent who begins with, “Ethan, you disobeyed Mommy,” sets up an entirely different conversation than one who says, “Ethan, you have broken my trust.” A boss who says, “We have an unacceptable error rate,” has framed the problem as meeting the boss’ expectations. One who says, “Our error rate is putting patient lives at risk,” has framed it as a moral imperative.
Research shows that small tweaks in verbal frames can provoke resentment or invite commitment about the same issue! Reviewing that research made the VitalSmarts research team wonder, “What about Christmas?” Each of us could think of Christmas mornings where kids had behaved like ravenous hyenas, tearing through wrapping paper to get at the next indulgence. Yet, we could also recall instances of sweet, selfless generosity, where a child sacrificed hard-earned cash to bring a smile to someone they loved.
After surveying our various memories, we were left asking, “Overall, does Christmas make us naughtier or nicer? Or is it the way we talk about Christmas that determines the influence of the season?”
So we invited roughly sixty kids, ages six to eight, to a Christmas party. After enjoying a rollicking good time decorating, eating cookies, and playing holiday games, the children were invited to visit with Santa, two at a time. The first child was a subject, and the second was a confederate—our secret scientific helper!
In the first condition, Santa used his age-old script, “What do you want for Christmas?” Kids have been preparing for this dialogue since they were in diapers. All of them were armed with a Christmas shopping list for the Jolly Old Elf. When they finished, Santa said, “Thank you for visiting me! If you’ll go over there and see my elf, he has a surprise for you!” The kids gleefully complied. The pair of tots faced the elf who announced sadly, “Oh no! I’m almost out of big chocolate bears. I only have one big one left. One of you can have the large one and the other will get the small one.” The elf then turned to the subject child and said, “Here—you choose. Which do you want?” Few deliberated for long. Over two-thirds snatched the big one. One little guy didn’t even wait for the elf to finish. When his eyes landed on the gargantuan bear he seized it, exclaimed “I’m out of here!” and fled.
In the second condition, the children had the exact same experience but with one small change—just a few words. Santa greeted the kids warmly and asked, “What gifts do you want to give this Christmas?” Most of the kids couldn’t even hear him! They began to recite wish lists like a kidnapper dictating ransom terms. Santa would smile and say, “Those sound like great wishes! And are there any presents you want to give to someone?” After two or three attempts to clarify his bizarre departure from the sacred Santa liturgy, their eyes would widen, and they’d offer a few thoughtful ideas.
Now came the moment of truth. The subject and confederate would approach Santa’s helper. The elf would sadly announce the tragic chocolate bear situation. He would offer the choice to the subject child. This time, not only did most kids answer more slowly, they responded more generously. One little girl removed both bears from the elf’s hands, examined them closely, reading the label, “Hmm . . . melted chocolate. Hmm . . . . Here—you take the big one!” She smiled, gripped the little bear and skipped out of the room. Simply changing the Christmas “frame” influenced over forty percent of kids to behave more graciously!
When you’re talking about problems at work, decisions with family members, or goals with colleagues, the words you choose to frame the issues are very influential. We at VitalSmarts hope the words you use this holiday season will bring you great joy, meaning, and connection with those you love.