Words, facts, and emotions

Eric Weinstein, a mathematician and economist who is also managing director at Thiel Capital, wrote an excellent piece on what he believes is the most important scientific term or concept that ought to be more widely known. It’s called Russell conjugation (or emotive conjugation) in honor of philosopher Bertrand Russell and, stated simply, it shares that words have two layers, a factual layer and an emotional layer.

From the example in Eric’s piece, each of the phrases below suggests that people don’t change their mind. That’s the factual component. However, the perception that you have of each person after reading the phrase is different. And that’s the emotional layer.

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

As shown in this example, the emotional layer sometimes simply reflects who is being talked about. If you’re describing yourself, you’re likely to use a word with a more positive emotional connotation than if you’re talking to someone else in the same room. And if you’re talking about someone else who isn’t in the same room, it’s easier to use a word with a more negative emotional connotation.

I have two key takeaways from the piece.

The first is to, to the extent possible, extract the factual and emotional layers of the information you absorb. The factual layer reflects the communicator’s perception of reality while the emotional layer reflects how they feel about that reality. Both are valuable signals.

The second is to choose your words carefully. Your recipient will interpret what you say based on the emotional connotation of your words to the same if not to a greater extent than their factual content.

I highly recommend reading the full piece which you can do so here.


Also published on Medium.