Monday, June 7, 2010

Imageability and Concreteness – What can we learn from the DDM 2010 ?

The DDM 2010 is over and with it 8 – 10 interesting debates, stuffed into 3 days plus one evening and according to what I have heard from a BDU Member, back in the old days feedback and adjudication after debates would start by asking questions like: Did we have fun ? and: Did we learn something ? For me the answer to both questions concerning the DDM can only be Yes and Yes. But since this blog is not for fun anyways (^^') let us take a look into: What did we learn ?

I want to sum it up and analyze this question on the example of the final debate, that took place on Sunday, since most people might have seen it and hopefully memorized it. The motion was: “TH believes that military actions to secure economic interests are justified.”

What exactly won Tuebingen this particularly debate in the end ? Why did the adjudicators choose the argument Tuebingen was presenting over the valid cases and strong argumentation the opening teams were presenting ? I will try to give one possible explanation and with it some advice for debates and arguments in general in this post.

1.) Some things to remember:

- As a member of the debate, arguments and developments in it are often seen different from how they are perceived from the outside.

- The adjudicators have more of an outside perspective, like an observer or the audience have.

- When presenting arguments as a speaker you often have much more aspects of it in your head than you are actually expressing verbal and nonverbal.

2.) Some scientific theory on words:

I will give a short overview on scales in which words are measured in psychological sciences to access how these words are perceived, processed and how these words affect emotional states. I will not go into all the nonverbal stuff that actually has a tremendous impact, on how spoken words are perceived and processed and so on. These scales I am talking about are purely aspects of the words themselves and are also true when reading these words for example.

Scales often used are:

- Valence: How positive or negative is the connotation of a word.

- Arousal: Does a word has some effect on your emotional and physical state that is activating or calming and evoking related physiological responses.

- Potency: An abstract quality, of how is the capacity of the thing or concept a word connotes.

- Imageability (see below)

- Concreteness (see below)

Imageability and Concreteness are both concepts in psychological science that describes how well you can „imagine“ the thing, or concept a word connotes (Imageability) or relate some sensory experience to that (concreteness). These are the concepts that we want to take a closer look at, in this post. Empirical evidence suggests, that with a high score of a word on these scales comes an easier memorization, a faster processing and the thing and concept behind the word appears to have more “clarity”. That means, that the consolidation of the word and all associated knowledge and connecting it to other relevant input is easier and faster and better memorized. To give some examples: 'Table' has a much higher Imageability and Concreteness than 'Science', obviously because everybody has seen a lot of tables and experienced them and can therefore imagine one, while 'science' is an abstract concept. Imageability becomes more important when comparing abstract things to one another. For example: 'Love' has a higher imageability than 'Integrity'. While both are abstract, with 'love' everyone can relate much more aspects, situations, experiences and also ideas because it is much more relevant to everyday life and everybody has probably thought about it much more often.

3.) Back to debating – analyzing the DDM 2010 final

So what ? Why is that relevant to debating ? Alright I tell you....
After hopefully understanding the basic concepts behind, what Imageablitiy and Concreteness mean in respect to words, let us extend these two measures to arguments. Therefore an Argument is more concrete, if the audience can relate some real life experience (coupled with sensory experience) to it and it is better imaginable if the audience has a clearer holistic idea of the argument, that means they understand intuitively what implications come along with it and have aspects/things or situations in mind they can connect with that argument.

I claim (and always have) that an argument becomes better and more powerful, when the receiver (in this case the adjudicator) can relate better to that argument. This means if the argument scores higher in Concreteness and Imageability. I feel that this might have had an important impact on the outcome of the final, where I feel Tuebingen made its case and argument much more plastic and imaginable and easier to connect to. I want to give a short analysis what I think happened, of course this is my personal view:

Remember: The case the opening gov. presented was that economic shortages dependent on the actions of foreign states (aka 'the others') would somehow threaten the state (aka 'us') and therefore the state (aka 'we') need(s) to be able to respond with force if everything else fails.

In the opening half of the debate the case always remained very abstract and felt to theoretically constructed. Nobody could really see how closing the panama canal would really threaten the state to that extend, that the utterly strong negative connoted action of war could possibly be justified. Remember what I claimed. Of course every intelligent person could follow the logical argumentation to some extend but no one could really imagine a situation that is so dire to 'us' that we would send jets to force an opening of the canal with weapons, risking a full scale war.

The opening opp. did fight back in quite a clever way by not only bringing up relevant principles and moral questions but also depicting the case of the government in an absurd manner through Scenarios like: “Yeah we go to war only so that every person in our state has 20 Euros more to live with”. Of course this is much over exaggerated, however such an image sticks with everybody who observes the debate and pushes the government in a position to actually 'show' that it is not 20 Euros or fresh strawberries that will be fought for.
I feel it didn't really help much at that point to construct cases where states manipulate international stock exchange to bring our economy down. That just wasn't very imaginable or concrete. How does that lead to me starving to death or suffering so hard, I would relate to war for a change ? You might need to help people finding this missing link. We just had a world economic crisis and still live relatively healthy and peaceful. So it seems this didn't really help in convincing the 'crowd' (including adjudicators maybe).

Now the closing gov. stands up and while not having many sophisticated and complicated arguments they finally break down the situation to the worst case scenario based on energy and fossil resources that make a much more intuitive choice for an example. Suddenly everybody can understand how not having oil even your supermarket might lag the very basic food you live by or how that might become astronomical expensive. Suddenly the explanation of: “If we are fighting for our survival, then it isn't a question of moral anymore. We might want to fight back and punish whoever we think is responsible for our crisis and do what we can to survive, even if it takes force and if it means we have to abandon our high class morale” becomes much more plastic and valid and somehow dramatic.

This might have beaten the again more abstract and high level approach of the opening opp. with “universal rights” for everyone, thus also for those we are attacking. Since it is both: an excellent rebuttal and deeper analysis of the case. Couple that with some minor arguments and you have a strong position. The closing opp. now should have made their vision to destroy those strong Image of 'us' dying, by depicting that we have enough alternatives or technical gain to not end up without the very basis to live by and maybe back it up with one other argument. The arguments they presented however weren't really striking the right chord at that time and position. They didn't really read the debates development and therefore couldn't gain an advantage in this debate, as I see it.

4.) Conclusion and what to look out for

Aristotle claims in his works concerning rhetoric, that when you deal with human beings it isn't really a matter of what is true and what is false, since most matters just doesn't really allow such an absolute approach and cannot claim absolute truth. Most affairs that humans debate are not of mathematical nature so that formal proves are possible. He claims that therefore to convince the audience that your argumentation is true you often cannot simply logically deducting what is 'true'. It might not be understandable to the crowd or they might just refuse certain assumptions or conclusions out of believes. Therefore rhetoric is the skillset to actually let your argumentation appear to be true to the crowd. Especially if you reference the future it is important that the audience believes that your argumentation, scenario, causal chain or whatever is 'likely' to happen as you say.

So the final question is: How do we do that ?

Fortunately Rhetoric and psycho-science have found some techniques and methods than seem to work quite well empirically and most of the time every debater knows them. In additional I will present some of my own thoughts along well established techniques and concepts:

- Show all relevant causal links: It is hard to identify what is important and what not. This isn't answerable on a general perspective. If you want to be on the save side, take your audience on the level of simple persons or children. Try to make each part of your causal chain 'count' and therefore I mean each piece should score high in Imaginability and Concreteness. If not possible, at least the base to start from should do so. As in the final debate: Of course everyone with some fantasy can construct the link between economic crisis and personal individual threat so high it demands drastic action. But everyone can also come up with a thousand scenarios where it will not end there but work out different. You need to guide them and show your view completely, don't let them room to interpret things into your case that don't belong there.

- The Example: The more abstract your concept the dire it needs an example to make the implications or causal effects imaginable or concrete. If your example is good people will question the principle much less and will get an easier grasp on what you are trying to get across. The example becomes more powerful if everybody can connect his own experiences or common sense to it. A stock market example in an economic debate might be cool but not understandable to someone who has no deep economic insight. Try to simplify examples, if you can bring across the same concept by depicting a child with a 5 dollar note going into a candy store, do so. The Example is powerful because if you can accept the example it is hard to not accept the principle you link behind it (unless the link is obviously absurd). Good examples can save you a lot of time explaining .

- The Metaphor: In contrast to the Example the Metaphor utilizes a completely different scenario to describe the same concept or link between things. This helps, if your case does not allow for much simplifications while staying in the same context, scenario or case. Metaphors can often connect to sayings or powerful well known scenarios, pictures or concepts or even persons. At least they should connect to more easy imaginable situations embracing the same principles. Metaphors are powerful because they leave it to the audience to get their “own conclusion” from it and thus this conclusion is automatically accepted because it is self produced. Yet of course this conclusion can be quite easy anticipated if choosing the right metaphor (should be very well known by everyone) and thus the metaphor guides the audience towards the speakers intentions.

-Use simple language: Sometimes a lot of technical terms or foreign language cites can create an Aura of intelligence and competency. However this only works if you have an established authority or some believed in competence already. This is not really the case if convincing foreign people or the 'crowd' or critical adjudicators in debates. Using simple words everybody knows and that are more common will drastically improve Imaginability and Concreteness of your arguments. People also react much more emotional to those words, which is desired as emotions actually have a dramatic impact on how we judge all kind of affairs, situations or even facts.

- Use precise language: Avoid ambiguous words or terms, since that again leaves room for confusion and reduces clarity. Even if it is quite obvious which one is meant, think of the brain as a processor that has to do an additional task even if it is an easy one. This distracts and at worst case brings up all irrelevant connections the word has in all not-meant connotations therefore distracting even further. Ambiguity is good when trying to use sarcasm or making jokes, this can help disarming arguments, but not when explaining your own arguments in clarity.

- Break it down to the relevant level, make your case 'matter': When arguing against strong positive or negative connoted words or concepts be it in moral or emotion, you need to come up with a strong counterpart for your case. Be sure you are taking an appropriately strong concept, scenario or case as very base and final justification. Abstract concepts can be strong enough (love, peace, democracy, freedom) but others aren't. You can do nothing wrong when basing your argumentation a level deeper by for example making even stronger that peace is good, because we don't want to get hurt or killed or mutilated due to conflict and we don't want other people to. Most of the time it will only cost you a couple more words and a few seconds but gain you a lot. How deep to go and how detailed to describe is of course hard to generalize. You will get a feeling over the time hopefully.

5.) Some final words

There is obviously much more to it, humor, non-verbal methods, etc. but I hope you can gain something from that post, even if you do not agree with every part. Hopefully some of this makes sense to you and I can only suggest that you give it a try or a thought when thinking of what might be important to do, show or say in your next debate.

1 comment:

  1. True! But while it is good to construct your arguments in a more accessible manner, there always comes the point at which you're facing a trade-off between saying more and saying it more beautifully. The list of techniques under point 4 quickly becomes mutually exclusive with a time limit of 7 minutes. Often times, it's real hard to use a simple metaphor for a real complicated case AND show all the causal links. So the real challenge is striking the right balance between all these different tasks. No doubt though that in Berlin we could improve on both word efficiency and word accuracy.