Listening to politicians talk during the UK’s general election gives us a wonderful opportunity to study our brain’s pattern-matching propensities and collect examples of how nominalisations are used to trivialize debates and manipulate us.
By turning verbs or adjectives into abstract nouns – nominalisations – and showering us with them, politicians hope we will vote for them without thinking. And it’s a sensible thing to do from their point of view because each time a person hears an abstraction he or she is forced to go into a mini-trance in order to pattern-match to what the abstraction means to them personally. That then produces an emotion and emotions are what drive people to act.
When a politician says he wants to “create a land of opportunity” he is trying to hypnotise us (whether he realises that's what he's doing or not); everybody wants an opportunity to have, do or be something – but the desired ‘opportunity’ of each individual can never be the same.
The blitz of nominalisations
The problem is that every pattern-match our brain makes is then tagged with an emotion, and it’s emotions, not reason, that fuel our actions – including voting.
So politicians use abstractions like ‘hope’, ‘positive change’, 'aspirations', ‘values’, ‘principles’, ‘fairness’, ‘prosperity’, ‘austerity’, ‘innovation’, ‘sustainability’, ‘liberty’, ‘freedom’ and ‘justice’ to raise emotions but cannot unpack in detail what these words really mean for every individual who hears them. That’s why they avoid being specific as much as possible – they use vague hypnotic language instead. And, because people don’t fully understand what is being done to them, yet know something is not quite right, they are becoming more and more suspicious and mistrusting.
“A politician, for example, might change the verb to modernize into the noun modernization, claiming that “we need modernization”, as though the process of modernization were something concrete that you could buy, see or touch. Similarly, we might be told that, “the great British people want us to deliver change” as if change were a parcel. The problem with such words is that they contain no sensory information – nothing specific such as who should be doing precisely what to whom. They are content-free, which is why they hypnotize both the listener and the speaker. To make sense of them, we have to go on an inner search to find a pattern-match for what such words mean to us personally before we can give meaning to them. Consequently, they always mean something different to every listener while simultaneously giving each the feeling that they understand what the speaker means. That is why they are the stock-in-trade words of politicians, gurus and snake-oil salesmen.”
This last paragraph was taken from the book Human Givens: The new approach to emotional health and clear thinking by Joe Griffin and Ivan Tyrrell.
For further information on nominalisations see this thoughtful and insightful article:
Struggling for meaning
Speaking in abstract terms is a powerful, manipulative tool. Gwen Griffith-Dickson considers how it is used to mislead – yet can also enhance understanding.