Active or passive voice? Things may feel more distant, less likely to have happened depending on which one you use

Sam Maglio
Sam Maglio has released a new study on the ways presentation of words impacts their interpretation. (Photo by Yana Kaz)

Don Campbell

The way we interpret a message can change depending on whether it’s framed in active or passive voice – even if the content is exactly the same. 

“When we communicate, we can speak using either the active or the passive voice,” says Sam Maglio, an associate professor in the Department of Management at U of T Scarborough. 

“What we found is that depending on which form you choose, it changes how your audience comes to understand that message.”

Across five studies involving subjects in Canada, Britain, Australia and the United States, Maglio and co-author Eugene Chan, a former PhD student at U of T’s Rotman School of Management, found that passive voice causes people to think the content of a message is farther away.

Passive voice conveys a greater sense of objectivity, but increases psychological distance from the content, triggering more abstract patterns of thought. On the other hand, Maglio explains that using active voice can lead to feelings of psychological closeness, known to activate more concrete patterns of thought.  

For example, if you were to say “a trip was taken by me” instead of “I took a trip,” listeners may assume the trip happened longer ago, took place in a more distant location, and is less likely to have happened at all.  

The research, published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, builds on what’s called construal level theory, which looks at the relationship between psychological distance and how people’s thinking about objects and events is either abstract or concrete. The theory explains how the more distant an object is, the more abstract it will be thought of, while a closer object is thought of in more concrete terms.  

“Our research unpacks one unique way we can ‘feel’ close or far, in a psychological sense, from what others describe to us,” says Maglio, who is an expert on consumer behaviour.

In the past, Maglio has explored psychological distance through how certain sounds can be associated with nearness and others with distance, and also how the direction people are heading can influence how they think about an object or event. 

Maglio says while using passive voice may seem more objective, and preferred by those communicating about science, it can also seem more abstract by losing a sense of immediacy. 

“If you want your audience to get revved up, you may need the sense of immediacy and closeness that comes with the active voice,” he says. 

A prime example could be using active voice in a report based on a health study. If a statement about the benefits of using sunscreen in reducing the risk of skin cancer is made in passive voice, it may unintentionally lead some to believe the scientific finding isn’t true. 

“There could be crucial cognitive consequences for those who receive a message in either the active or passive voice,” adds Maglio.