American Culture

A human thinking trap (and how to avoid it)

by JS O’Brien

There is a very important man in human history whose name too few people know:  Alfred Korzybski.  He’s the father of general semantics, and before you say to yourself, “Oh, it’s only semantics,” understand that improper use of semantics can absolutely, positively, kill you.  I’ll explain why, shortly.

Korzybski is not only the father of general semantics, but a god high in the pantheon of such fields as cybernetics, neuro-linguistics, consistency theory, and the like.  He deserves to be.  He was the first to examine human behavior in terms of what people can know, and how they act on that knowledge (Descartes may have provided a foundation, but Korzybski built the palace).  He said that there are really only two means of knowing:  (1) through the structure and capabilities of the nervous system, and (2) through the structure of language and how we use it.Â

Korzybski divided all  human experience into levels.  The first level is the event itself.  The second is our verbal, symbolic description of this event, internal or external, and our description is subdivided into three levels of abstraction:  (1) the descriptive, (2) the inferential, and (3) the judgmental.  Improper use of the judgmental can kill you.  For instance:

Descriptive:  That automobile has its right turn-signal on.

Inferential:  That automobile is going to turn right.

Judgmental:  It’s safe to pull out in front of that automobile.

We probably all know at least one person who is stuck at one of these levels of abstraction.  Talk to a person stuck at the descriptive level, and you may get a story that goes on forever with “and then he said, and then she said,” without ever arriving at a point.  Talk to a judgmental person, and you may get, “I hate women drivers, ” or “He wouldn’t have been accused if he weren’t guilty.”

Korzybski pointed out that the very structure of language tends to push us towards the judgmental.  Most languages have very few intermediate words between polar opposites.  For instance, find the single, intermediate word between such English pairs as “honest/dishonest,” “relevant/irrelevant,” “learned/ignorant,” etc.  To be sure, there are some intermediate words in English (for instance, a range or words between “beautiful” and “repulsive”), and taken in context, the word “average” can be very useful.  But in most cases, we are forced to use modifying words like “very,” “somewhat,” “most,” “many,” etc. if we want to move our language from the judgmental level to the descriptive.  Another weakness of language is the verb “to be.”  It implies that people are a certain thing, which is  leap to judgment.  “Joe is lazy” is a greater order of abstraction than, “Joe didn’t get the work done.”

There is debate about whether the symbology of language drives cognitively driven behavior, or whether language is the ultimate result of hard-wired behavioral tendencies.  I tend to believe the latter, while recognizing that there is a reinforcing loop.  For instance, if we are biologically predisposed to order our world into broad categories to simplify our thinking and reactions (and I believe we are), then we would structure our language into exactly the judgmental, bipolar words and ways of expressing states of being that we currently possess.  Having said that, the language itself makes it difficult to break out of the judgmental level of abstraction.  One must consciously make an effort to use, say, the word “many” in the phrase, “Many elderly people are poor drivers.”  It appears to be our natural inclination to simplify, saying simply “Elderly people are poor drivers.”

Even our writing classes tend to force people from the descriptive or inferential into the judgmental.  I once had a journalism professor tell me that the way I worded something told him that I was guessing.  I replied that guessing was exactly what I was doing, that a guess was all that the data warranted, and that not using modifying words in this case would imply that I was more certain than anyone should be.  Still, there is this push among writing teachers to use transitive verbs (except among political writers where “mistakes were made” has become ubiquitous) as if there is something virtuous in certainty when certainty is impossible.

The upshot of all this is that jumping to levels of abstraction, like judgment, before we have enough information is a human thinking trap that has caused us much grief over human history.  For instance, we categorize others by race, as if race has any real meaning, and then apply a structure of judgment to that race that carries over to individuals in that racial group.  We categorize others by when they were born, calling them a “generation,” and deciding that all individuals of that generation must share the same characteristics.

Understand that it’s not necessary to say something like, “All millennials feel entitled.”  It’s enough to say, “Millenials feel entitled.”  In the English language, the “all” is implied unless a modifier is used, in the same way one can say “Water is wet,” without having to say “All water is wet.”Â

It’s a human thinking trap, and the way to avoid it is to pay closer attention to the way you write and think.  If you start to use modifying words, I think you will find that you begin to modify your thoughts, as well.  And uncertainty, painful as it can be, is a very useful thing, indeed.  It helps us avoid bad decisions.

 It may help you decide not to pull out in front of the wrong car, someday.

(Note:  JS O’Brien will have very limited access to the Internet in the next week.  Please do not take any failure to respond personally.)

9 replies »

  1. When I first started blogging (check out my earlier work at the Daedalnexus for many examples), this was one of my bigger problems. I hope that I’ve moved past implied “alls” etc. and stopped painting with quite so broad a brush as I used to.

    It’s not always easy. I tend to catch this stuff in edits, rather than in the process of writing my thoughts the first time around.

  2. George Lakoff’s work in the area is quite enlightening here, people operate in metaphors and frames perhaps largely due to hard wiring, but on a practical level as well.

    A new driver has trouble because there are there are a thousand things to pay attention to at any second and not enough time to do so, while the more experienced driver will limit attention to know problematic issues, and let the rest take care of itself unless they spot something unusual.

    That such expectations cause extensive chain reaction crashes, shows how that thinking can go wrong, but unless we want to limit all travel to 20mph, everyone who drives faster runs that risk. You head over the rise of a hill you expect the road to continue on the other side, you don’t drive up and look over. Though if your experience indicated that not all roads continue, you might do just that, the more dramatic the discovery the greater the influence.

    There is a problem here because the more dramatic the event, the rarer it is likely to be, as the drama is often because it is rare and unexpected, yet it will have much more influence in decisions about the common situation. Where there has been a great deal of trauma, either early in life, or very recent, the influence can cause the reactions to become quite odd from an outside viewpoint.

    The evolving expert abuse of this tendency needs to be seriously studied by those who would restrict such abuse, hold it accountable, and find a way to deflect or repair the results of the trauma.

  3. JS,

    I’ve been teaching news writing since 1990. And arguing with Slammy about the difference between subjective and “objective” journalism. Much of what you write applies.

    I also teach opinion writing. Oddly, it’s hard to break students of the habit of purely descriptive or half-and-half descriptive and inferential writing. They say they have opinion, but the vocabulary base is often lacking (that binary thinking!) to make fine distinctions of meanings and judgments.

    Thanks for the time you took for write this post. I’ll be spreading it among my students.

  4. Thanks for the excellent post. These points (all of them) are not only important in expressing our ideas, they are also important in analyzing the words of others. In some cases, we are prone to, at least unconsciously, jump to the judgmental because winning an argument is more important than arguing well…even if the victory is rendered hollow by broad, judgmental generalities.

    I do think that language impacts the way in which we think, though i am not ready to come down on one side of that debate or the other. I think of the difference between Russian and English in terms of word order. Our SVO structure makes us rely on “to be”; spoken English, in particular, uses “to be” heavily, and so it translates easily into written English. Russian has no rule about word order. For example, “I love you” can be said four different ways, and the speaker can remove the subject completely because the conjugation of the verb implies the subject. All four ways of saying “I love you” mean what they say, but there is also an interesting shading of implication that stems from how the speaker chooses to phrase the sentence. Or maybe this phenomenon is something that i imagined because i was predisposed to compare these subtle shifts of grammar against my native grammar.

    In any case, thank you for making me think.

  5. Jackpine – I studied Japanese for a year in grad school, which is just enough to make you think that you might start grasping some of the subtleties of the language in 3 or 4 more years of detailed study (and a year of immersion living in Japan). But one of the things I remember from my classes was how mathematical the language is, and as a result, how frustratingly subtle it can be. At the simplest level of meaning, you can say the same thing in any number of ways and be technically correct. But there are apparently shades of meaning that change depending on social status, gender, and whether you hope to be snide, friendly, or purely informational.

    Fascinating language. I wish I remembered more than a smattering of it.

  6. What started off as a lesson in something new to me, linguistics, came around to something I wrestle with all the time.

    Perhaps because I’m a Gemini, it’s my nature to qualify. The use of “more,” “some,” and “many” comes naturally to me.

    As a writer, though, those words blunt one’s effectiveness. I admit that, when I think I can get away with it without lying, I omit them and deal in generaliztions.

    Sometimes 100 percent accuracy has to take a back seat to getting your point across.

    In other words, I don’t want to come across as namby-pamby when, as a Gemini, that’s exactly what I am.

    Thanks, JSO. I’ve never seen this issue addressed before!

    Guess that if you’re without (much) access to the Internet, you’re on an outdoors adventure of some sort. Have a great time.

  7. An excellent post. I would just like to make the comment that adding dates to assertions also helps me to think more clearly about the world. “Everyone agreed Saddam had WMD’s” is a much different statement than “Everyone agreed in 1992 that Saddam had WMD’s.” People change, and situations change, and ignoring when someone did or said something is a foundation principle of propaganda..

  8. The above description for verbal levels is quite concise and a good illustration. But Korzybski does not go direct from the event to the verbal. Missing is the non-verbal object level of experience prior to verbalization. This is not the event, and it is not the verbal descriptions. An awareness of this (missing) level allows us to better formulate our experiences in the first place. We are much better at “seeing” what we expect to see and what we want to see than we are at seeing what, on a second, more careful, look, we might see.

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