The Words You Choose in an Argument Can Literally Break Your Heart

arguingIn the middle of a fight with your significant other, word choice is usually not foremost on your mind. But it should be, particularly if you’re a man, according to a new study in the journal Health Psychology – and not just to save your partner’s feelings.

In the heat of stressful conflict, your brain is commanding the release of a stress-chemical cocktail comprised of proteins called cytokines–produced by cells in the immune system to help the body mount an immune response during infection.

Abnormally high levels of these proteins are linked to cardiovascular disease, type-2 diabetes, arthritis and some cancers.  This study suggests that how rational or emotional your communication is directly corresponds with the levels of those chemicals in your body and the damage they can do. 

Forty-two couples made two separate overnight visits to the study lab over two weeks. During their first visit, couples had a neutral discussion. During the second visit, couples focused on the topic of greatest contention between them. Research interviewers figured out ahead of time what made the man and woman most upset in terms of their relationship and gave each person a turn to talk about that issue, thus igniting the conflict.

During an argument, people tend to use two categories of words: emotionally charged and cognitive.  Emotionally charged words come easily when angry and many of them have just four letters.  Cognitive words such as “think,” “because,” “reason,” and “why” indicate that the participants of the conflict aren’t lost in rage. They can still make sense of the issues and are more likely to arrive at a resolution. 

Researchers measured the levels of cytokines before and after the two visits and used linguistic software to determine the percentage of certain types of words from a transcript of the conversation.  The results suggest that people who used more cognitive words during the fight showed a smaller increase in cytokines. Cognitive words used during the neutral discussion had no effect on the cytokines.

When researchers averaged the couples’ cognitive words during the fight, they found a low average translated into a greater increase in the husbands’ cytokines over time, but not an increase in wives’ levels. Researchers speculate that the reason for the discrepancy is that women may be more adept at communication, and perhaps their cognitive word use had a bigger impact on their husbands. Women in the study were also more likely than the men to use cognitive words.

The big takeaway: choose your words carefully and keep the emotion in control when arguing. Over time (fellow men especially) we pay the price for losing ourselves in the fog of fury.
Graham JE, Glaser R, Loving TJ, Malarkey WB, Stowell JR, & Kiecolt-Glaser JK (2009). Cognitive word use during marital conflict and increases in proinflammatory cytokines. Health psychology : official journal of the Division of Health Psychology, American Psychological Association, 28 (5), 621-30 PMID: 19751089

hat tip: EurekElert



Filed under About Research

4 responses to “The Words You Choose in an Argument Can Literally Break Your Heart

  1. Bill

    To really test your conclusion we would need an experiment where we train couples somehow to use more cognitive words during fights and see if this lowered the level of cytokines compared to their usual arguing style.

  2. Is it word choice or does word choice merely reflect autonomic arousal and emotional escalation? John Gottman has argued that some individuals have a tendency toward hyper-arousal in conflict situations. High levels of autonomic arousal, he says, leave an individual incapable of interacting rationally.

  3. Pingback: K and J Investigations and Case Management » Fostering Care: Words We Say Can Make Us Sick and Break Our Heart

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s