The war for our minds is waged over neither facts nor opinions

Thursday, June 15th, 2017

The war for our minds and attention is now increasingly being waged over neither facts nor opinions, but feelings, and one weapon in this war, Eric R. Weinstein explains, is the Russell Conjugation:

Russell Conjugation (or “emotive conjugation”) is a presently obscure construction from linguistics, psychology and rhetoric which demonstrates how our rational minds are shielded from understanding the junior role factual information generally plays relative to empathy in our formation of opinions. I frequently suggest it as perhaps the most important idea with which almost no one seems to be familiar, as it showed me just how easily my opinions could be manipulated without any need to falsify facts. Historically, the idea is not new and seems to have been first defined by several examples given by Bertrand Russell in 1948 on the BBC without much follow up work, until it was later rediscovered in the internet age and developed into a near data-driven science by pollster Frank Luntz beginning in the early 1990s.

In order to understand the concept properly you have to appreciate that most words and phrases are actually defined not by a single dictionary description, but rather two distinct attributes:

I) The factual content of the word or phrase.

II) The emotional content of the construction.

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.

Years later, the data-driven pollster Frank Luntz stumbled on much the same concept unaware of Russell’s earlier construction.  By holding focus-groups with new real time technology that let participants share emotional responses to changes in authoritative language, Luntz was lead to make a stunning discovery that pushed Russell’s construction out of the realm of linguistics and into the realm of applied psychology. What he found was extraordinary: many if not most people form their opinions based solely on whatever Russell conjugation is presented to them and not on the underlying facts. 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. Further, such is the power of emotive conjugation that we are generally not even aware that we hold such contradictory opinions. Thus “Illegal aliens” and “undocumented immigrants” may be the same people, but the former label leads to calls for deportation while the latter one instantly causes many of us to consider amnesty programs and paths to citizenship.

If we accept that Russell Conjugation keeps us from even seeing that we do not hold consistent opinions on facts, we see a possible new answer to a puzzle that dates from the birth of the web: “If the internet democratized information, why has its social impact been so much slower than many of us expected?” Assuming that our actions are based not on what we know but upon how we feel about what we know, we see that traditional media has all but lost control of gate-keeping our information, but not yet how it is emotively shaded.


  1. Ross says:

    My tribe is (far) more influential than my Funk and Wagnall’s, aye.

  2. Slovenian Guest says:

    You don’t need “facts” when you care!

    It’s not like the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

  3. Talnik says:

    This is nothing new. I learned this in the ’60s when studying how governments manipulated their populations in the world wars and beyond. A simple propaganda tool, prevalant in education and mass media. They just have a new name for it.

  4. Graham says:

    In an episode of “Yes Minister”, Bernard replies to some comment by the Minister about his predecessor:

    “That’s one of those irregular verbs, isn’t it? I give confidential press briefings. You leak. He has been charged under the Official Secrets Act.”

  5. Chris C. says:

    Asking the participants in a discussion to agree, in advance, on definitions of key terms often exposes those inclined to use emotional terms and floating (changing) word meanings.

  6. QL says:

    The reason why “Russell Conjugation” is an obscure concept is that the basic idea is very well known, ancient, and continually discussed. The classical term is “paradiastole”; nearly every major modern philosopher has some amusing set-piece on the subject. Russell’s version simply makes no distinctive or original contribution.

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