Took Those Words Right out of My Mouth!

Alt: 3 doodles stand with signs that say “NO MO POBA” and “NOOOOOOOOOBA.” One of them shouts into a megaphone, “Capture our words and actions, not our thoughts and feelings!”

Here at We ❤ Health Literacy Headquarters, we really ❤ research. This surely comes as no surprise to you, dear readers — we’ve written about loads of research-related topics (where to test! how to test for less! omg there are so many testing techniques!). Today we’re talking about communicating research results.

Picture this: you’re a researcher with a sweet tooth and a grand plan. You want to know which ice cream flavors are most popular among, say, cattle ranchers in Montana. So you get some Montanan ranchers together in a room, buy a bunch of different kinds of ice cream, and ask them which flavors they like best.

Now it’s time to ethically and accurately write up your research findings. To do this, be sure to report on participants’ actions and behaviors, not their POBAs (perceptions, opinions, beliefs, or attitudes). Why skip POBAs? Well, because you have no way of knowing what participants think or feel. You only know what they tell you and what they do. (Granted, there probably aren’t a lot of ranchers in this scenario concealing secret ice cream-related thoughts, but it’s the principle of the thing.)

To make sure that the only thing you’re putting in your participants’ mouths is ice cream, choose verbs that show communication — like said, noted, expressed, suggested, or indicated. Steer clear of POBA verbs like thought, felt, or believed. Let’s look at a few examples.

Instead of:

  • Many participants thought the lobster ice cream was gross.
  • Most participants felt that black raspberry chocolate chip was the best kind.


  • Many participants said they didn’t like the lobster ice cream.
  • Most participants expressed a preference for black raspberry chocolate chip.

Just look at those completely objective, factual observations!

And here’s a final pro tip: command-F is your friend. Before you share your findings, double check your document for POBA verbs. The good news is, if you find a POBA word, it’s super easy to swap in something more accurate.

The bottom line: When reporting your research findings, focus on participants’ words and actions (which you can know), not their feelings or beliefs (which you can’t).

Tweet about it: Tips for communicating research findings from @CommunicateHlth: #HealthLit


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