We are told that we are entitled to our own opinions but not our own facts. This leaves out the observation that the war for our minds and attention is now increasingly being waged over neither facts nor opinions but feelings.
In an era in which anyone can publish anything, the quest to control information has largely been lost by institutions, with a race on to weaponize empathy by understanding its basis in linguistics and tweaking the social media algorithms which now present our world to us accordingly. As the theory goes, it is not that we don’t have our own opinions so much as that we have too many contradictory ones, and it is generally our emotional state alone which determines on which ones we will predicate action or inaction.
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. In fact, it is relatively simple to write a computer program to crawl factually accurate news stories against a look-up table of Russell conjugates to see the exact bias of every supposedly objective story.
Thus the answer to the puzzle of our inaction it seems may be that we built an information superhighway for all, but neglected to build an empathy network alongside it to democratize what we feel. We currently get our information from more sources than ever before, but, at least until recently, we have turned to traditional institutions to guide our empathy. Information, as the saying goes, wants to be free. But we fear authentic emotions will get us into trouble with our social group, and so continue to look to others to tell us what is safe to feel.
This essay was originally published in 2017 at https://www.edge.org/response-detail/27181