Tag Archives: Words

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.

Words are an abstraction of reality

We reason in words. But words are an abstraction of reality.

When we describe what we see as reality with a certain set of words, the connotations which these words bring about in our brains produce a certain feeling. However, if we were to offer a plausible alternative description to the same reality using a different set of words, due to the different connotations which these words have in our brain, we would produce a different feeling.

Sometimes the different feelings which emerge from these alternative descriptions aren’t that far apart. But sometimes they’re quite different.

There are two takeaways from this reasoning. One is internal and the other is external.

Internally, when we use words to reason about reality, it’s useful to describe the same reality with different words. Our first attempt presents a limited view of reality which is influenced by the specific words we choose and the connotations which these words have in our brain. If we perform multiple descriptions, the spectrum of our resulting feelings is likely to provide a more accurate assessment of actual reality.

Externally, we need to pick our words wisely when communicating with others. Expressing the same reality with different words which have different connotations can produce a very different reaction in the recipients of our communications.