It's not easy to boast, when you're a politician. Take for example Bill Clinton, who'd had a pretty good first term. But when it came time to campaign for his second term on the strength of his record, assertions about his accomplishments didn't get much traction. According to his advisor Dick Morris,
Clinton's achievements were a problem. In strategy meetings, he often complained that he had created seven million jobs and cut the deficit but no one seemed to notice. In speeches, he referred to the achievements awkwardly. Our polls showed audiences already knew about them or didn't believe they were true.
The solution, apparently, was a re-jiggering of language. Morris relates that communications strategist Bob Squier had the following bright idea:
The key…was to cite the achievement while talking about something he was going to do. For example: "The hundred thousand extra police we put on the street can't solve the crime problem by themselves; we need to keep anti-drug funding in the budget and stop Republicans from cutting it." Or: "The seven million jobs we've created won't be much use if we can't find education people to fill them. That's why I want a tax deduction for college tuition to help kids go on to college to take those jobs."
Linguists of course will recognize that this language is infested with presuppositions—those fascinating linguistic organisms, which because of their presumption of truth, head deniability off at the pass. There are no fewer than six distinct, politically-relevant presuppositions in the above brief excerpt.
Once you know about the linguistic properties of presuppositions, it seems intuitively natural that they should act as performance-enhancing aids for claims, particularly when it comes to believability. After all, their entire reason for living is to allow the speaker to signal that certain information is already taken for granted as shared knowledge—and if it's not, then the hearer should accommodate it post-haste into his set of background assumptions.
In fact, psychological studies as far back as the seventies have shown that people can be so eager to accommodate presupposed information that they might even tweak their own memories accordingly. In a study led by memory scientist Elizabeth Loftus, people who'd witnessed simulated car crashes were more likely to mistakenly remember a stop sign when asked "Do you remember seeing the stop sign?" as opposed to "Do you remember seeing a stop sign?"
But I suspect there are other intriguing psychological properties of presuppositions that have yet to be investigated. While working on my recent book Sold on Language with Greg Carlson, I spent a fair bit of time pitching my tent over on the terrain occupied by social psychologists, where much of the interesting work on the psychology of persuasion is being done. Let me tell you a bit of what I found while camped out there.
One of the heftiest contributions to the persuasion literature is the now voluminous body of findings documenting the trade-off between substantive and shallow cues in the formation of people's attitudes. The standard experimental paradigm involves exposing subjects to statements pre-tested to be either strong or weak arguments for a particular position. For instance, a common scenario would be to have student participants read or hear persuasive arguments in favor of mandatory comprehensive exams for college seniors. An example of a strong argument for this position might be that where implemented, such exams have had a demonstrable effect on the starting salaries of newly-hatched graduates. A weak justification might be that several Ivy League schools have comp exams for seniors. You'll be happy to know that, when explicitly asked to evaluate the strength of such arguments, the typical undergraduate does in fact find the first more compelling than the second.
But the interesting question then is what impact—if any—the quality of these arguments has on subjects' attitudes about the senior exams. That is, how persuaded are they by the arguments, and does it matter if these arguments are sturdy or flimsy ones? Sometimes it matters quite a lot. But at other times, subjects are startlingly insensitive to the quality of an argument. Psychologists have concluded that this is essentially a matter of allocating processing resources. When people have something at stake personally and when they're not being distracted by other demands on attention, argument strength usually plays a major role in persuasion. Perhaps not surprisingly, those situations in which people show the least discernment of argument strength turn out to be the same situations in which they're the most easily persuaded by superficial cues such as the reputation or attractiveness of a source, or even just the sheer number of arguments presented, nevermind their content. It seems that where inattentiveness closes one door to persuasion, it opens another.
Some of the factors that might tilt people in the direction of either thoughtful evaluation or mindless response can be quite surprising. For instance, inducing a crappy mood rather than a pleasant one often leads to more thoughtful thought. And a sobering finding: bolstering a sense of subjects' personal power, either through role-playing or by manipulating their posture, can have the effect of turning down the dial on thoughtful processing.
And, in case you're wondering (no need to be defensive), there are stable individual differences in all this. As you might have guessed, some folks actually like to think. In scientific terms: people show greater perspicacity regarding argument strength if they are high scorers on a scale known as Need For Cognition. This scale measures the extent to which people tend to get off on complex ideas and problem-solving opportunities—presumably, a group fairly well-represented among New York Times crossword addicts and Language Log readers.
But what does all this have to do with presupposition? Two things.
First, presuppositional language partitions a sentence into the backgrounded presupposed information versus foregrounded asserted content. If information packaging has an impact on how much attention is doled out to specific bits of content in a sentence (and there's evidence to suggest that it does), then one might imagine that claims that are encoded as presuppositions would be held up to less scrutiny than claims that appear in the foregrounded portion of a sentence. And, as a result, the quality of those claims might matter less in persuasive contexts.
Second, presuppositions (especially when used in a broader social context rather than a more intimate one) communicate that the speaker assumes there's general consensus about the truth of the presupposed material. And that, as it happens, can also affect how closely people peer at an argument. When they're told that an idea has been accepted by the majority of the people who've read it, their attitudes generally show less sensitivity to the argument's quality than when they're told that only a minority has bought in. Hence, social consensus often seems to grant permission to turn on the auto-pilot. (Which is just one of the reasons why I find the practice of publishing polling data in the lead-up to elections to be one that surely does nothing good for democracy.)
I'm pretty sure that no one has yet experimentally tested whether presupposed claims result in less sensitivity to argument quality than asserted claims. But there it is: a research question free for the picking.
But what all of this really suggests is that politicians who are neither linguistically informed nor naturally endowed with great verbal intuition and finesse shouldn't be shy about getting a little help. Where the hell was Bob Squier when Al Gore needed him?
Squier should have stopped him from saying this:
"I took the initiative in creating the internet."
When what Gore so obviously should have said was this:
"The initiative I took in creating the internet…"
Fiedler, K. & E. Walthier. 1996. Do you really know what you have seen? Intrusion errors and presupposition effects on constructive memory. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 32, 484-511.
Loftus, E. F. 1975. Leading questions and the eyewitness report. Cognitive Psychology, 7, 550-572.
Martin, R. & M. Hewstone. 2003. Majority versus minority influence: When, not whether, source status instigates heuristic or systematic processing. European Journal of Social Psychology, 33, 313-330.
Morris, D. 1997. Behind the Oval Office: Selling the Presidency in the Nineties. New York: Random House.
Petty, R., E., Cacioppo, J.T., Strathman, A., & J. R. Priester. 2005. To think or not to think? Exploring two routes to persuasion. In T.C. Brock & M.C. Green (Eds.), Persuasion: Psychological Insights & Perspectives. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.