Are you a locus of abstract cognition or a brain on a stick?

The caption in this pic is taken from Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature in which he writes, “A person is not a locus of abstract cognition (a brain on a stick) but a body with emotions and a part of the fabric of nature.” (Page 186). The abstract/concrete parallel in this sentence nicely illustrates the topic of this post – that our english can come across as utterly greek or plain cold-blooded if we don’t stop to consider who it is we’re communicating with, and what form your ideas and messages can take in their mind.

In his landmark study into human thought processes from childhood to adulthood, developmental psychologist, Jean Piaget, found that 80% of the population were concrete thinkers and the other 20% were abstract thinkers. Since the 1980′s, scientists suggest that the abstract figure is closer to 15%. This is a significant statistic … and this here empty sentence is written to give you some pause for thought before we look at the implications of this for us as writers.

This 85/15 statistic also explains why accomplished copywriters are on the same page as novelists and poets. That old copy room catch-phrase “write pictures” is a simple (and concrete) expression of understanding the human mindset, even if Piaget was never on our bookshelf. Our own daily experience informs us of the engage-ability of concrete narrative versus the abstract. It’s easier to understand when we read sentences that make us “see” the idea being expressed.

But vision is just one of the suite of senses that enable us to experience the world and receive ideas. There’s sound, taste, touch and smell. Depth psychologists would also add a sixth sense – insight.

For the writer, the palette of writerly colours include writing sound:
The car screeched to a halt.

You might want to emphasise the length of the screech and add a bit of smell to it:
The car screeeeched to a rubber burning halt.

Writing taste:
His curt reply left a bitter taste.

Writing touch:
His words flowed like clear cool water.

Writing smell:
Lennon’s voice wafted like sandlewood incense through the speakers.

Metaphor (“writing is the sound of your mind in ink”) and similes (“like sandlewood incense and clear water”) also help us understand through comparisons with concrete imagery.

The more explicit or specific you are, the sharper you bring into focus the idea being communicated. Which brings us to the Ladder of Abstraction popularised by teacher and writer, Hayakawa in his book, Language in Action. His ladder identifies four levels of meaningfulness. At the top of the ladder are abstractions and at the bottom are concrete, identifiable nouns. Note how the title, Ladder of Abstraction, expresses this idea with its two nouns: the first “ladder” is concrete. You can see it, hold it, and climb it. It involves the senses. The second noun “abstraction” is just that, you can’t see it, smell it, feel it, hear it or taste it. It is an idea that does not appeal to the senses but to the intellect, and hence needs to be explained.

The Ladder of Abstraction

Level Four – abstractions
Transportation, freedom, literacy, success, power, environment

Level Three – noun classes (broad group names with minimum specification)
Vehicle, liberation movement, school, reward, energy, landscape

Level Two – noun categories (more defined groups)
Car, freedom fighter, student, award, electricity, forest

Level One – concrete, specific nouns
Toyota, Aung San Suu Kyi, Catherine from St Judes in Moshono Tanzania, trophy, light, tree

Depending on how focused you want your reader to be, you can go even more specific by writing Toyota Camry; Aung San Suu Kyi, General Secretary of the National League for Democracy; six year old Catherine from St Judes in Moshono Tanzania; Logie; dim light; Casuarina.

There is no abstract bad, concrete good. Accomplished writers know when to move up and down the ladder of abstraction. The more conscious you are with your choice of words, the more effective you can become as a writer/communicator.

Just be careful of your motivation.

If in the beginning was the word, then your choice of them is a matter of social responsibility. It not only enables clear, concise and compelling communication but also determines perception. This is a matter of another post, but let me just illustrate the power of words in shaping our perceptions. One of my Clear Writing students wrote a report on researchers from Monash University who found that public perception of asylum seekers is strongly influenced by the media’s choice of provocative words that label people. Words like “Queue jumpers”, “Boat people” and “Illegal immigrants”. Provocative and concrete.

It’s a cautionary conclusion to the persuasive power that is the sound of your mind in ink.

38 Comments

  1. Christopher says:

    This gives me more options to describe and tailor my message.

    I have heard it before as chunking up or down, but I’m not sure of where though.

  2. Mel says:

    The ladder of abstraction is a great model to keep in mind… I’m interested in how it plays its part in the purchase journey – that is, if certain levels appeal to people at different points when they are our purchasing or researching.

    For example, levels three and four might appeal more once someone starts thinking about buying a new car, but levels one and two might be more appropriate the further they go down the research path. Think I might keep an eye out on campaigns etc to see if there is a link here…

  3. Simon Carr says:

    I like these demonstrations of how abstract can become concrete, and i would like to write more on this, but…. Miles B mentioned COLD ICE CREAM and all of a sudden i feel an overwhelming compulsion to stop typing and make for the freezer : )

  4. Julie says:

    This abstraction and concrete model really helps the writer shape their language, enhancing their ability to paint a picture and tell their story.

  5. Renee says:

    This article fleshes out some of the ideas we were talking about last week – I quite like the ladder of abstraction.

  6. Katie says:

    Another important piece of writing technique to keep in mind. I will try and incorporate this in the next assignment.

  7. Allison says:

    I think this might relate also with the idea we learnt earlier about taking the ego and cleverness out of your writing and putting the reader first. The more specific, simple and concrete is also the most emphathetic.

    • NICOLAS says:

      A valuable insight Allison. I’ve always found that the more audience-focused I am, the more likely I am to write in a way that resonates with them. They kind of dictate your approach.

    • NICOLAS says:

      Put more simply, it’s not what you put into the writing but what the reader takes out that counts.

  8. Kate says:

    Perhaps the way forward is to write 85/15, concrete/abstract? I think that concrete thinkers (like me, although I think I might be 85/15!) like to feel enticed by something that resonates, even if they don’t know why. If you’re researched your audience well, this should be enough to hook them in, and encourage them to read on.

    • NICOLAS says:

      Right on Kate, and now there’s a fresh way of looking at this theory since our session today on writing “fascination bullet points” – feature is the abstract and benefit is the concrete.

  9. Michael H says:

    This post drives to heart of good writing which I think is to provoke the reader’s imagination, to get them seeing, tasting, touching and so on. The more I learn about the craft of good copy, the more I’m of the opinion that words don’t necessarily need to be at the top or bottom of the ladder to necessarily strike a chord – they simply need to hit you with a truth. This truth,as you say, may be quite different for an accountant than it is to an actor so I think it’s important to have a healthy repertoire of concrete and abstract usage, depending on your audience.

  10. Appu says:

    The takeaways from this post was on incorporating senses into your words/sentences such as the “Lennon’s voice wafted like sandlewood incense through the speakers.”(smell).
    The ladder of abstraction was also interesting. Whereas a word can move up or down this ladder. So it will be interesting to look at words and see where they fall under and use them in the future with a sense of how abstract or concrete they are , for communicating effectively to the reader.
    For example,
    Level 4 – POWER
    Level 3 – ENERGY
    LEVEL 2 – ELECTRICITY
    LEVEL 1 – LIGHT

    I do wonder if most headlines have mostly abstract words and then in the article move on to the heavy concrete words once their attention is arrested!

    • NICOLAS says:

      Just Do It. Think Different. The Man in the Hathaway Shirt. War is Over (If You Want It). Why So Many Volkswagons Live to be 100,000. Answer These Ten Questions and Work Out the Date of Your Own Death. If Samuel Beckett Had Been Born in Czechoslovakia We’d Still Be Waiting for Godot. We Won’t Make a Drama Out of a Crisis. Have You Ever Wondered How Men Would Carry On if They Had Periods? … abstract or concrete?

  11. Anagha says:

    The post explains very well, how using abstract ideas/ words can make the content more engaging for the reader, content which relates to all the senses.

  12. Enjoyed the blog, I am definitely an abstract thinker, working in a concrete environment. Words are powerful and do shape our perceptions. Using senses is a powerful tool to get a message across.

  13. gillian33 says:

    A very powerful, thought provoking blog. It illustrates many interesting points from writing technique to social responsibility as a writer, I reckon to be able to absorb and apply, you need to read at least thrice.

  14. Leona Devaz says:

    Absolutely brilliant – this is my favourite blogpost. I’m studying Creative Writing and this reinforces what I am learning. Love the reference to Aung San Suu Kyi – I am of Burmese heritage, which makes it a great example. And St Judes, I have been to. In fact – I sponsor some children there!

  15. Megan says:

    By using certain words the writer is able to draw their audience in and create a sense of presence and responsibility. The main focus of the writer is to express an idea, the better you are at choosing your words the better you will become at getting the point across clear and concisely.

  16. Shane says:

    Thank you for the insight. I think that just being aware of the different levels of abstraction allows you to sharpen or soften your message – depending on the audience and the desired outcome you wish to achieve.

  17. michaelcxs says:

    I’d be curious to see more findings on the 85/15 ratio, and whether this concrete/abstract epistemology can be learned or altered…But yes, as for writing, I think it’s very much a case of your target audience defining what rung of the ladder you operate on, and for how long.

  18. Ricky says:

    very interesting! or as you might want me to say – a high level of fact that’s relevant to my personal situation. concrete.

  19. Rebecca says:

    It’s nice to know that there is a fluid movement between abstract and concrete thinking, that you can apply different thinking and writing styles as needed. Fascinating stuff.

  20. Sophie says:

    Yes, i agree. Figuring out whether to be concrete or abstract is tricky, but i guess it links back to getting into the mindset of the target audience and how the message might form in their minds depending on our choice of words.

  21. Caitlin says:

    I particularly like the idea that it is up to the writer to determine when concrete or abstract (or something in between) words should be used. I’ve no doubt this is a valuable skill to have when writing!

  22. Johanna says:

    This post is an excellent explanation of how using the concrete to ground and specify abstract ideas can make your writing more engaging as it the reader con relate – and see, hear, taste, feel or smell exactly what you mean.

  23. I am definitely an abstract thinker and never understood why some people spoke with so much detail, now I get it, they’re the concrete thinkers. This explains why I get so many questions, I need to be concrete sometimes.

  24. Natalia says:

    I find Jean Piget’s findings fascinating that ‘80% of the population are concrete thinkers and 20% are abstract thinkers or possibly closer to 15%. ‘ The variety of techniques to demonstrate concrete and abstract ideas is very clever and the trick is knowing when to use them. I will try this in future copywriting.

  25. Jeff Hyde says:

    I take two things from this article, one concrete and one more abstract. Firstly, the fact that 80-85% of readers are concrete thinkers should be a clear guide to us, as copywriters, as to how we best construct and deliver our messages with maximum effect. Secondly, the enjoyment and entertainment of having abstract notions brought to life, through varying levels of specification, would seem to be only limited by the awareness and skill of the writer.

  26. mark thomas says:

    The use of abstract sentences requires deffinition of the message, connecting the reader with there senses, by painting a picture of clear insights. Each person perception will draw on their own experience as to how they will react to the message. Abstract seems more fictional, as it draws you to a place where imagination dominates
    leaving you asking for answers to the message.

  27. As a rule, the specific (concrete) has greater impact on the reader/listener than the general. Friedrich Nietzsche said, “the more abstract the truth you wish to teach, the more must you allure the senses to it” (Beyond Good & Evil; Chapter 4). The clearer they can see, hear, smell, feel or taste the articulation of your idea or message, the surer they will engage and comprehend. But you must know your target audience and how they think. A paramedic’s idea of a particular truth may take very different form from that of a courier’s.

  28. Adelaide says:

    It seems that specific writing is often a. harder and b. more effective. A brilliant lecturer said, “you will never need adjectives and adverbs if your nouns and verbs are well chosen”. He compared the example of “the coupled argued bitterly and pettily” with “the couple quarreled”.

    Abstraction almost seems a bit lazy or clumsy in the art of writing- even in abstract writing like the language poets. Are there times when abstraction is a more effective means of communication?

  29. Miles B says:

    I thought that I would try my hand at the The Ladder of Abstraction:

    Level 4 – Happiness
    Level 3 – Scrumptious food
    Level 2 – Mint choc chip icecream
    Level 1 – A cold icecream on a hot summer day.

    • Bronwen says:

      What a terrific illustration (love the icecream), that has gone straight to the point of concrete and abstract.

  30. Concrete thinking is really important when writing about health (something I seem to spend a lot of time doing), which I believe takes a very different mindset to creative copywriting for ads and other commercial marketing materials where there is perhaps more opportunity to apply abstract thinking which evokes the senses.

  31. Helen H says:

    Thank you for showing the level of depth you can achieve in being specific with your word choices.
    I will put this in practice with my next piece.

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