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Sentence unscrambling task

Author: Dr Simon Moss


Sometimes, researchers need to manipulate the goals, motivations, or values of their participants. For example, in some studies, researcher need participants to pursue social goals (e.g., Fitzsimons & Shah, 2008). Alternatively, researchers might need participants to value autonomy (e.g., Levesque & Pelletier, 2003).

Explicit instructions to pursue specific goals, motivations, or values, however, can introduce demand characteristics. That is, participants become cognizant of the potential hypotheses that researchers would like to test, which can affect their behavior. The sentence unscrambling task, developed by Srull and Wyer (1979), offers an implicit or subtle means to activate particular goals, motivations, or values--and thus circumvents the problems that explicit instructions can provoke.

Typically, participants receive approximately 15 sets of five words, such as "disciplined", "man", "flower", "the", "was". For each set of five words, participants must form a sentence, using only four of these terms, such as "the man was disciplined". Embedded within about 60% to 80% of these sets is a word that is synonymous with the goal, motivation, or value that researchers would like to evoke. All other words are unrelated to the goals.

For example, in one condition of a study conducted Fitzsimons and Shah (2008), 10 of the 16 sets of five words included terms that relate to social motives, such as socialize or party. These embedded words did indeed seem to affect the motives of individuals. Specifically, participants became more likely to recall friends who facilitated their social motives after they completed this task.

Variations across studies

The number of sentences and embedded words seems to vary across studies. For example:

The control condition also varies across studies. That is, in each study, the researcher must identify words that are unrelated to the goal, motivation, or value of interest. For example, in the study conducted by Levesque and Pelletier (2003), the words in the control condition included still, apartment, closed, moving, near, early, and hungry. These words were unrelated to the two other conditions--autonomous motivation and controlled motivation.


Several studies have demonstrated the efficacy of the unscrambling sentence task.

Cooperation goals

Bargh, Gollwitzer, Lee-Chai,Barndollar, and Trotschel (2001) conducted a study in which words that are synonymous with cooperation, including dependable, helpful, support, reasonable, honest, cooperative, fair, friendly, tolerant, and share, were embedded within the scrambled sentences (see Experiment 2). In the control condition, words unrelated to cooperation, such as salad, umbrella, city, gasoline, wet, purposeful, switch, lead, mountain, and zebra, were embedded instead& otherwise, the two conditions were identical. Participants exposed to words that are synonymous with cooperation were indeed more inclined to behave cooperatively in a subsequent resource management game.

Impression versus memory goals

Hamilton, Katz, and Leirer (1980) showed that memory recall depends on the goals of individuals. In their task, participants recevied a series of sentences that describe various traits. The traits corresponded to several broader categories. Participants who were explicitly instructed to form an impression of someone subsequently tended to recall the sentences in clusters& that is, sentences that related to the same traits tended to be recalled in succession. Participants who were instructed to memorize the information did not show this tendency.

Chartrand and Bargh (1996) subsequently showed that implicit rather than explicit instructions to form an impression or memorize the information generated the same pattern of results. These researchers implicitly activated the goal of forming an impression of someone in some participants. Words that are synonymous with impression, such as opinion, personality, evaluate, and impression, were embedded within the scrambled sentences. In other condition, the researchers implicitly activated the goal of memorizing information. Words that were synonymous with memory were included, such as absorb, remember, retain, and memory. These implicit goals generated the same pattern of findings.

Autonomous versus controlled motivation (see Self determination theory)

Levesque and Pelletier (2003, Experiment 1) applied the unscrambling sentence task to prime either an autonoumous motivation or controlled motivation. In particular, to prime autonomous motivation, words such as spontaneous, involved, challenge, mastering, delighted, and absorbed were embedded with the scrambled sentences. To prime a controlled motivation, words such as obligation, constrained, pressure, and forced were included. The autonomous primes were more likely to promote enjoyment and absorption in a subsequent set of crossword puzzles.

Spirituality and authority

In one study, conducted by Shariff and Norenzayan (2007), words that correspond to some supernatural being, such as "divine", "spirit", "sacred", or "God", were embedded within the scrambled sentences. After unscrambling these sentences, individuals were more likely to act altruistically. For example, they were more willing to donate money to a charity anonymously. Similarly, individuals were more inclined to act altruistically if words that relate to law and authority, including "police", "contract, "court", or "jury", were embedded within these sentences.

Hot versus cold

The sentence unscrambling task has also been used to prime the concept of hot rather than cold, which tends to provoke hostility or aggression. In a study conducted by DeWall and Bushman (2009), 13 sets of 5 words were presented. For each set, participants selected four of these words to construct sentences. To prime the concept of hot, the words sunburn, boils, roasted, hot, sweats, and burning were embedded within these 13 sets. To prime the concept of cold, the words frostbite, freezes, defrosted, cold, shivers, and frozen were interspersed instead.

Relative to participants exposed to words that relate to cold temperatures, words that relate to hot temperatures provoked hostility. That is, participants were more inclined to perceive a person, who had acted assertively, as hostile, angry, unfriendly, and dislikeable (DeWall & Bushman, 2009). Furthermore, in a word completion task, they were more inclined to recognize hostile terms. They often assumed that ki - - represents kill rather than kiss, for example (DeWall & Bushman, 2009). In short, six allusions to words that relate to hot temperatures was sufficient to activate hostile inclinations.

Some practical recommendations also emanate from this study. In particular, to curb aggression, pictures of hot settings, references to hot deals, and other incidental allusions to hot temperatures need to be diminished.

Reappraisal of emotions

The sentence unscrambling task has also been applied to encourage participants to reappraise a context, ultimately to curb unpleasant emotions. Specifically, in a study conducted by Williams, Bargh, Nocera, and Gray (2009). participants were instructed to rearrange sets of five words to form sentences. Half of the participants unscrambled sentences that included references to reappraisal, such as "reassessed", "perspective", "appraised again", and "carefully analyzed". The other participants unscrambled sentences that did not refer to reappraisal.

Next, participants were instructed to prepare a speech--a speech they erroneously assumed they would need to present later. In addition, their heart rate, a physiological measure of stress, was assessed before and after preparing this speech.

Usually, heart rate increases as individuals prepare a speech. This increase was not as pronounced, however, after individuals unscrambled sentences that alluded to reappraisal. Indeed, these incidental references to reappraisal tempered this increase in heart rate as effectively as did explicit instructions to reassess the situation and adopt an objective perspective.

A second study was identical, except participants also reported the extent to which they tend to engage in reappraisal, completing the Emotion Regulation Questionnaire (Gross & John, 2003). A typical question is "I control my emotions by changing the way I think about the situation I'm in". Incidental references to reappraisal again moderated the heart rate of participants. This benefit of these incidental references was especially pronounced in participants who do not habitually engage in reappraisal. Other participants, presumably, apply this technique regardless of whether or not reappraisal is primed.

Factors that could moderate the effects of sentence unscrambling and goal priming

Dispositional goals

Previously, researchers assumed that sentence unscrambling will activate motivations or tendencies that align with the primes. References to achievement, like "excel" or "win", should evoke a motivation to achieve. References to cooperation should elicit an inclination to behave supportively.

Hart and Albarracin (2009), however, uncovered a complication to this assumption that could apply to sentence unscrambling as well as other methods that prime goals. These primes might not necessarily activate motivations that are consistent with the words. For example, some individuals are usually more motivated to enjoy themselves than to achieve important goals, even in settings such as school or work. These individuals, when exposed to words like "excel" or "win", perform less effectively.

Specifically, according to Hart and Albarracin (2009), primes usually evoke specific contexts: References to achievement might activate contexts like school or work& references to cooperation might activate contexts like requests for donations. When these contexts are activated, the usual inclinations or motivations of individuals in these situations are elicited.

To illustrate, consider individuals who are typically more inclined to enjoy themselves than to achieve important goals. References to "excel" or "win" might evoke contexts such as competitions, school, or work. These individuals typically seek fun rather than achievement in these contexts. They seek pleasurable activities, perhaps to preclude burnout or fatigue (Greenwich, 2001). They form an association between achievement contexts and fun activities. These words, therefore, might curb the motivation to achieve and impair performance on demanding tasks.

Hart and Albarracin (2009) conducted a series of four studies to substantiate these contentions. In one study, participants completed a series of questions that assessed their achievement orientation, with questions like "I find satisfaction in working as well as I can". Next, they were exposed to subliminal words, in the context of a lexical decision task. These words related either to achievement, such as attain, master, strive, and excel or to some neutral words, such as green or hat. Finally, they completed questions that assess the degree to which they prefer fun to achievement.

Interestingly, in participants who did not report an elevated orientation to achievement, primes that related to achievement elicited a preference towards fun. In contrast, in other participants, these primes evoked a preference towards achievement.

The next study was similar, except that Hart and Albarracin (2009) examined the behavior of participants. Specifically, exposure to words that relate to achievement reduced persistence on a difficult intellectual task--but only in participants who did not report an elevated level of achievement motivation. These participants were more likely to shift from a demanding verbal task to an enjoyable rating of cartoons when granted the opportunity.

These findings do not, however, eradicate the benefits of primes. Overall, when collapsed across participants, achievement primes tended to promote achievement behavior (Hart & Albarracin, 2009). That is, on average, individuals are more likely to associate achievement contexts, relative to other contexts, with behaviors that relate to achievement rather than fun.

Limitations of sentence unscrambling

First, because the key words are presented visibly, exposure to these terms could promote conscious deliberation about related goals or activities (Ferguson, 2008). In other words, the effects of these words might be ascribed to controlled, conscious strategies rather than automatic, unconscious goals.

Nevertheless, Ferguson (2008) provided preliminary data that challenges these possibility. Participants were asked to report any thoughts they experienced after this task. None of the participants referred to goals that align with these words. Regardless, some researchers, like Ferguson (2008), recommend that other tasks, such as subliminal priming, be applied to ensure the goals are not conscious.

Second, the sentence unscrambling test spans a longer duration than some alternatives, such as the task in which participants must uncover words from a matrix of letters. In the study conducted by Ferguson (2008), 7.0 minutes was dedicated to the sentence unscrambling task& 2.5 minutes was dedicated to the matrix task.

Alternatives to sentence unscrambling


Instead of the sentence unscrambling task, some researchers present primes--pictures of words that are intended to activate specific motivations or tendencies. In some studies, these primes are visible. To illustrate, in a study conducted by Aarts and Dijksterhuis (2003), some participants were exposed to visible pictures of exclusive restaurants. In response, participants were more likely to demonstrate more decorum when eating later.

In other studies, some of the primes are subliminal--presented too rapidly to be recognized consciously. In one study, for example, participants were more creative after they were subliminally exposed to the Apple logo instead of the IBM logo (Fitzsimons, Chartrand, & Fitzsimons, 2008).

Primes can activate a variety of motivations. First, some primes have been shown to elicit impulsive or hasty behavior. In one study, reported by Zhong and DeVoe (2010), some participants were exposed to subliminal pictures of fast food logos, like KFC, Taco Bell, and Burger King. Exposure to these logos was shown to expedite the rate at which participants read an extract. In a subsequent study, these logos increased the likelihood that individuals would purchase products that conserve time--such as a 2 in 1 shampoo. The final study showed these logos also increased temporal discounting: That is, participants often preferred smaller rewards now than larger rewards in the future.

According to Zhong and DeVoe (2010), individuals associate fast food with impatience. Fast food enables individuals to consume food rapidly and, thus, is associated with haste and impatience rather than a willingness to wait. Exposure to fast food, hence, elicits an inclination towards impatience.

Story telling

Instead of the sentence unscrambling task, some researchers instruct participants to construct stories that revolve around 9 or so key words (Reed, Aquino, & Levy, 2007). For example, in a study that was conducted by Molinsky, Grant, and Margolis (2012), some participants received nine words or phrases that relate to economic logic, such as fiscally responsible, efficient, profitable, cost-benefit analysis, businesslike, and professional. In the control conditions, participants received nine words that revolved around common objects, such as book, car, chair, computer, desk, pen, street, table, and trash can.

All participants were asked to write a story that related to these words. To conceal the objective of this procedure, participants were told the study revolves around analyzing the handwriting of people. If the stories revolved around economic logic, participants were less inclined to experience empathy or show compassion towards a person in trouble.


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Last Update: 5/28/2016