Presupposition and boasting instructions for politicians

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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…"

Sources:

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.



17 Comments

  1. Ben Hemmens said,

    July 15, 2011 @ 2:36 pm

    I guess in any selling situation it's also true that what you have done for me in the past is a lot less interesting than what you can still do for me.

    I have created seven million jobs is relevant to seven million people (and their dependents). Anyone else will be feeling: so? But the prospect of educational opportunities appeals to a lot more people. So saying I'll provide more educational opportunities is the main thing, it'll grab people's attention; and the seven million jobs are demoted to exactly the supporting role they should have in this pitch: I did them, so believe me, I'll be able to do this.

    I like the stuff about presuppositions, but I think there's this basic advertising rule of thumb of putting the appeal to people's aspirations in the spotlight. And although the seven million jobs still occupy the first part of the sentence, they form a perfect run-up to the punchline. Can't you just hear Clinton delivering that (revised) sentence?

  2. Paul Zukowski said,

    July 15, 2011 @ 4:45 pm

    Oh, you mean statements structured like this: "Because they want the old and weak to die, Republicans won't raise the debt ceiling." Now that you point it out, I now know what's so maddening about most partisan pronouncements — they presuppose something so it flashes right by unquestioned, yet should be questioned.

  3. Lance said,

    July 15, 2011 @ 4:58 pm

    Excellent post. (Also: hi, Julie!)

    When I'm watching political commentators, I'll occasionally turn to my wife and say "You know, there was an interesting presupposition in his statement…." But that's an effect of being trained to watch for presuppositions; even though I'm considering the politics of what they're saying as opposed to listening for linguistic examples, I think I'm a lot more aware of it when they try to slip something like that past. Which is another possible factor to test when someone looking to do the research examines the argument quality: whether having studied presupposition makes a listener more aware of them as a device for argument.

    (And wouldn't it be nice if it turned out that it did, and some basic linguistic training came to be considered essential for a politically informed populace? Linguistics alongside civics in high schools! Just think!)

  4. Julie Sedivy said,

    July 15, 2011 @ 5:18 pm

    Well hello there, Lance.

    Do they still teach civics in high school??

    You raise an interesting question, which obviously should be proposed as Experiment 2. Clearly, I would like to think that being linguistically informed might have salutary effects on interpreting persuasive language. Otherwise, I doubt I'd invest as much effort as I have in teaching and writing about language and persuasion.

    But it may be that the training would have to run pretty deep. I do know of some older studies back in the seventies by people like Richard Harris that studied implied claims versus asserted claims. The general finding was that people systematically mis-remembered the implied claims as having been directly asserted. This happened even when subjects were taught to distinguish between implied and asserted meanings and to pay attention to this distinction in the study.

    Perhaps, in order for linguistic knowledge to have an impact on the day-to-day processing of messages, one has to cultivate a regular habit of attending to language form. But this is something I've very often wondered about.

    Now. A couple more comments, and we'll have a full grant proposal slapped together.

  5. Gunnar H said,

    July 15, 2011 @ 6:10 pm

    The ancients considered rhetoric to be one of the main pillars of an education. I'm not convinced it really enabled them to distinguish substance from form in political discourse any better, though.

    I was thinking the other day about how presupposition can make a joke or an insult that much more effective, like the comeback line from Mr. Show that starts "Do I come down to where you work…?" (Obscene suggestion omitted; Google it if you will.) It is an effective and funny insult because it's IMPLICITLY making a presupposition about the target's profession, where a mere assertion of the same claim would be lame and easy to brush off.

  6. NF said,

    July 15, 2011 @ 10:35 pm

    Really interesting post! It strikes me that the packaging of politically interested presuppositions often takes the form of common noun compounds; e.g., in the present debate about the debt ceiling, we've been hearing a lot about "job creators" and the perils of raising their taxes. To judge from the widespread and almost completely uncritical repetition of terms like this by media outlets, it would seem that, like the other presuppositions mentioned above, they don't demand much in the way of argument quality.

  7. Pflaumbaum said,

    July 16, 2011 @ 5:02 am

    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.

    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.

    I bought your argument, but now I'm wondering if, not for the first time, I've been had…

  8. Mona Williams said,

    July 16, 2011 @ 7:51 am

    Presuppositions not only require some skill to recognize, they also take a little more time and effort to respond to than run-of-the-mill false statements. Bertrand Russell demonstrated this when he pointed out how much easier it is to assert that the present king of France is bald than to deny it. In a sound-bite argumentation culture, this bodes poorly for the would-be refuter. While the astute listener is turning to his wife with an observation about the presupposition he has just ferreted out, the commentator has already gone on to the next one.

  9. Alex said,

    July 17, 2011 @ 2:18 am

    Yes, putting something in as a presupposition is a good way of avoiding conflict. In order to take issue with a presupposition, an interlocutor has to commit a nonsequitur.

    Something I've noticed as a lesbian is that embedding a "coming out" disclosure into conversation as a presupposition tends to be more comfortable for all involved. It's best if you put it in at the beginning of your turn. "Oh, my wife would kill me if I watched the new Torchwood episode without her. Have you seen it?" This tends to result in a lot less confrontation than a statement like "I'm gay" or "I'm married to another woman." A flat-out statement invites the other person's opinion of me, which I often don't want to hear.

  10. Dan H said,

    July 18, 2011 @ 4:06 am

    Tangential note: Derren Brown, in /Tricks of the Mind/ talks an awful lot about the use of presupposition in hypnotism and stage magic in general. So you say "as you feel yourself drifting off and becoming more relaxed, you will find…" not "you will find yourself drifting off and becoming more relaxed."

    In a sense it's a classic misdirection. If you are told X will cause Y, you're so distracted looking out for Y that you forget to watch out for X.

  11. Cymbria said,

    July 19, 2011 @ 4:55 pm

    Something just hit me! Here we all are shaking our fingers at politicians and advertisers (even hypnotists – good point Dan H), as if we sit (or stand in our 'personal power postures') as mere intellectual observers of the crimes in question. But here, now, before you all, I confess: (And I've never admitted this before, especially not to myself) I am guilty of arguing using presuppositions.

    I'm sure you do it too! But along with this realization comes a very real concern. Beginning a discussion by saying, "just because I do a better job of cleaning…," or "since I'm better with money/kids/computers…," could be allowing these presuppositions to slip by unchallenged because they are usually presented in conjunction with a more pressing immediate concern (ie: the current stack of dishes!). Each repetition of these background assumptions would effectively imbed them deeper into a couple's shared reality. The long term effects of using these potentially dangerous linguistic shortcuts are certainly worth contemplating. Experiment #3?

  12. Julie Sedivy said,

    July 20, 2011 @ 11:11 am

    Huh, never thought about their usefulness in domestic arguments. I'll have to remember that…

    Actually, your comment brought up another interesting question, this time about repetition. It's known that repetition of an assertion (whether true or false) makes it more credible to hearers (for example, see Bacon, 1979, J. of Experimental Psych., Human Learning & Memory). One interpretation of this is that statements that are perceived to be familiar are more readily accepted as truthful. If that's the case, then my guess is that it should take fewer repetitions of presupposed content (relative to asserted content) to gain the same level of credibility, since the use of a presupposition signals that the content should already be familiar.

  13. Cymbria said,

    July 21, 2011 @ 10:31 am

    I agree with your heightened credibility hypothesis, as do the results of my unstructured (and entirely counterproductive) experiments in getting-someone-else-to-do-the-dishes.

    I propose a new marital experiment (ethics be darned!), with the goal of reversing the damage:
    "Since you're so great at vacuuming…"
    "Because you budget so well…"
    "Does having the perfect wife…" (hmmm, maybe I shouldn't push my luck)

  14. Alon said,

    July 31, 2011 @ 8:03 am

    There's been some good work on this in both formal and applied pragmatics, mainly under the heading of 'presupposition accommodation'. I'm surprised that Language Log's own Kai von Fintel hasn't jumped in on the thread; he has done some deservedly well-know work on the topic. In a nutshell, the default assumption about presuppositions is that they convey knowledge that's already part of the interactional 'common ground' and so doesn't need to be restated. However, there are well-known instances in which presupposition can be felicitously used to update the common ground. (If, say, I invited Kai for dinner and he answered 'I can't; I have to pick up my daughter from the airport', his answer would be pragmatically adequate even if I didn't previously know he had a daughter.)

    Marina Sbisà has done some interesting work on the use of informative presuppositions for persuasive purposes. I wish there were more contact between psycholinguistic research and applied work in pragmatics and discourse analysis. Even if the research questions a discourse analyst faces cannot always have the kind of precise operationalisation that characterises psychological research on the topic, it would be good to build on more solid foundations. (Now, what I would really like to work on is on algorithms for automatically picking up presuppositions from a corpus, but the requirements would be at least as complex as those for identifying metaphors.)

  15. Alon said,

    July 31, 2011 @ 8:05 am

    (System says I've already said this, but I can't see my comment; is some kind of moderation now active, or just a bad cache somewhere?)

    There's been some good work on this in both formal and applied pragmatics, mainly under the heading of 'presupposition accommodation'. I'm surprised that Language Log's own Kai von Fintel hasn't jumped in on the thread; he has done some deservedly well-know work on the topic. In a nutshell, the default assumption about presuppositions is that they convey knowledge that's already part of the interactional 'common ground' and so doesn't need to be restated. However, there are well-known instances in which presupposition can be felicitously used to update the common ground. (If, say, I invited Kai for dinner and he answered 'I can't; I have to pick up my daughter from the airport', his answer would be pragmatically adequate even if I didn't previously know he had a daughter.)

    Marina Sbisà has done some interesting work on the use of informative presuppositions for persuasive purposes. I wish there were more contact between psycholinguistic research and applied work in pragmatics and discourse analysis. Even if the research questions a discourse analyst faces cannot always have the kind of precise operationalisation that characterises psychological research on the topic, it would be good to build on more solid foundations. (Now, what I would really like to work on is on algorithms for automatically picking up presuppositions from a corpus, but the requirements would be at least as complex as those for identifying metaphors.)

  16. Julie Sedivy said,

    August 3, 2011 @ 9:11 pm

    Certainly presuppositions can be used to update common ground—but there are obviously constraints. One can't use a presupposition to add information that would be deemed as surprising or low in probability of occurrence except—as Alex above pointed out in referring to her wife—as a way of communicating that such information should not in fact be treated as surprising. This is part of the rhetorical force of presuppositions—they can communicate something about social norms. For instance, an ad making a reference to "your iPhone" is obviously not conveying knowledge about what's in common ground; it's not even updating the common ground. What it is doing is conveying that having such information in the common ground would be unremarkable.

  17. Alon Lischinsky said,

    August 5, 2011 @ 5:37 am

    @Julie: One can't use a presupposition to add information that would be deemed as surprising or low in probability of occurrence is an intuitively reasonable proposition, but we know by now that our intuitions about language are often very, very wrong. That's why I would like to have a tool for identifying presuppositions in a corpus; I suspect the patterns would turn out to be quite different from what we imagine them to be.

    You are right, however, in that presuppositions convey that a certain belief would be unremarkable as part of the common ground. Sbisà makes pretty much the same point in the paper I mentioned above. However, the way in which these presuppositions are processed depends to a considerable degree on the prior knowledge of the reader, and their role relationship to the writer. I did some work on the persuasive use of presuppositions in management writing for my dissertation, and I suggested that, when readers does not possess a general script or schema to make sense of the discourse referent, the textual presuppositions about typical actors, processes or constraints will be used to populate this schema. Lacking the world-knowledge required to estimate the fit of the presupposed model with the empirical data, readers will be maximally generous in accommodating the authors' suggestions.

    There are many genres that deal with a topic that is likely to be unfamiliar to their intended recipients, but at the same time are overtly pedagogical in their intention to provide them with novel methods and frames for making sense of it; the popular management texts I analysed are a case in point, but so are textbooks or international news. Such texts have great freedom to introduce questionable concepts through presupposition.

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