Russell Conjugation and Bayesian Thought

Russell Conjugation or emotive conjugations is the idea that a words connotation is more important than its denotation.  That is the emotional content of the word is more important than the factual content of the word.  Eric R. Weinstein in his essay on Russell conjugation puts it as follows

Where words can be considered “synonyms” if they carry the same factual content (I) regardless of the emotional content (II). This however leads to the peculiar effect that the synonyms for a positive word like “whistle-blower” cannot be used in its place as they are almost universally negative (with “snitch,” “fink,” “tattletale” being representative examples). This is our first clue that something is wrong, or at least incomplete with our concept of synonym requiring an upgrade to distinguish words that may be content synonyms but emotional antonyms.

The basic principle of Russell Conjugation is that the human mind is constantly looking ahead well beyond what is true or false to ask “What is the social consequence of accepting the facts as they are?”  While this line of thinking is obviously self-serving, we are descended from social creatures who could not safely form opinions around pure facts so much as around how those facts are presented to us by those we ape, trust or fear. Thus, as listeners and readers our minds generally mirror the emotional state of the source, while in our roles as authoritative narrators presenting the facts, we maintain an arsenal of language to subliminally instruct our listeners and readers on how we expect them to color their perceptions. Russell discussed this by putting three such presentations of a common underlying fact in the form in which a verb is typically conjugated:

I am firm. [Positive empathy]
You are obstinate. [Neutral to mildly negative empathy]
He/She/It is pigheaded.  [Very negative empathy]

In all three cases, Russell was describing people who did not readily change their minds. Yet by putting these descriptions so close together and without further factual information to separate the individual cases, we were forced to confront the fact that most of us feel positively towards the steadfast narrator and negatively towards the pigheaded fool, all without any basis in fact.

The key phrase is “without any basis in fact”.  The three statements have the same denotation, however, the differences in emotional connotation of the word conveys more information. That is, there are two pieces of evidence or data in each of these sentences. The first is the speakers belief that the subject does not change its views easily.  The second tells piece of information tells us about its effects.  The use of firm lets us know that speaker believes the quality is a good thing.  Whereas pig-headed lets us know that it’s a problem. Our language cleverly allows us to pass multiple pieces of information across such a short sentence. Imagine if we had to say the sentences as follows

I do not change my mind easily and this has good consequences for myself and the people around me.
You do not change your mind easily and it is mildly annoying.
He/She/It does not change his/her/its/ mind easily and it is a problem.

It becomes very obvious why we place most of the importance on the second piece of information–because the first piece of information is the same for each of the three sentences and only the differentiation is the second piece of information.

But back to “without any basis in fact” why would the listener pay heed to the first part of sentence (that the speakers believes the subject does not change opinions frequently) without believing the second part: whether the expression of this trait is good, bad, or mildly annoying.  It is very easy to confuse emotion with irrationality unless you realize that emotion is a summary of the facts weighted by importance. An intelligent listener will pay attention to both pieces of information. Unsurprisingly, humans do.

Pollster Frank Luntz stumbled onto the same concept by holding focus-groups with real time technology.  Luntz tested the concept (unaware of Russell’s philosophy) by comparing emotional response with changes in the connotation of words. From Weinstein’s essay:

What he found is that most people form their opinions solely on the Russell conjugation without thinking through the effects for themselves. That is, the very same person will oppose a “death tax” while having supported an “estate tax” seconds earlier even though these taxes are two descriptions of the exact same underlying object.

On the surface this seems very, surprising.  However this falls in line with what we discussed earlier.  Given two pieces of information about a subject in which case the first is the same.  We will use the second piece of information.

Since my mind was spinning at first, lets go back to a simple example to make sure we all understand.  Lets say you have to hire an employee.  You have two choices. Both went to the same college and got the same (appropriate) degree.  However one was a good student and one was a bad student.  Which do you hire?  Most of you would want to know what I mean by good and bad, but supposing you that information was unavailable to you (because I am mean and like to hide information), which would you choose?  I think we would all choose the “good” student. This is exactly what is happing with our estate and death tax.  The negative underlying connotation of death tax gives us information that it is the bad student (or unfair) while the lack of extra information about the estate tax tells us nothing about whether it is good or bad.

If we think of people as “logical”, then Russell conjugation doesn’t make any sense.  If however, we think of them as rational but working with incomplete information, not only does Russell conjugation make sense, but it also is what we should expect.

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Russell Conjugation and Bayesian Thought

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