Why Abstractions Are Obstructions

Free-Range Thinking | April 2000

To make sure your audience will read your press releases and reports, be moved by your advertising, and respond to your invitations, keep your language specific, personal, and rooted in everyday concerns.

One reason why some ideas sail over people’s heads while others capture their hearts is neatly explained in a simple game with 8 cards. Devised by psychologist Leda Cosmides to demonstrate how the human mind works, the game consists of two brain-teasers:

Four at the Bar
Four people sit at a bar, each drinking some kind of beverage. What you know about these people is limited to the information on the cards below:

25-yr. old female

Male with a beer

female with a Coke

17-yr. old male

The legal drinking age is 21, and it’s your job to enforce the law. Which of these four people must you approach? (The solution is located beneath the copyright at the end of this story.) Did you come up with the right answer? Most people do and consider this a relatively easy test. Now you’re ready for something a little harder.


Letters & Numbers
Four cards are placed on a table. Each card has a letter on one side and a number on the other. This is what you see:





This game has one rule: any card with a vowel must have an even number on the other side. To confirm this rule has been followed, which cards must you turn over? (The cow on the back page has the answer.)

How did you do this time? If your response was incorrect, you probably made a common mistake: while any card with a vowel must have an even number on the other side, that does not mean even numbers must have vowels on their opposite sides. Since the 6 could have a vowel or consonant on the other side, you can ignore it, just as you can ignore the D since there is no rule concerning consonants. Obviously, you have to check the A to confirm the rule, but you also must check the 3 to make sure this odd number is not paired with a vowel.

Don’t feel badly if you were stumped or took much longer to determine the right answer. Most people find “Letters & Numbers” harder, and that’s where Cosmides makes a fascinating point: despite appearances, the two games are identical. Each presents a pair of variables to be cross-matched: age and beverage type in the first scenario, letters and numbers in the second. Within each variable are two choices (over 21/under 21, alcoholic/non-alcoholic, vowel/consonant, odd/even) and each game has a simple rule about how these choices must match up. But there is one essential difference.

“Four at the Bar” is a real-world situation which anyone can envision. Even though the game introduces a third variable (gender), we easily factor that out as we derive the correct answer. “Letters & Numbers,” in contrast, presents its challenge entirely in abstractions, and while vowels, consonants, odd and even numbers are simple concepts, look how easily a single rule can confuse matters. Through this game, Cosmides elegantly makes the point that our minds absorb and interpret real-world situations much more easily than abstractions.

If this seems like a truism hardly worth repeating, you’re not reading your mail. Assuming your daily stack is anything like mine, it’s probably filled with invitations, press releases and reports that are swimming in abstractions – and all produced by well-meaning public interest groups. Consider this recent example: a draft invitation to a public discussion about labeling genetically-engineered foods. Here is the letter’s opening paragraph:

Dear Friend:
During the past few months, you probably have read or heard in the media about the experimental foods created through a controversial new technology called genetic engineering. We invite you to join us for an evening with the experts on this critical issue so that you can find out how this technology touches your family and learn about current legislation.

Clear, straightforward, but it could be more compelling. After receiving the letter, I suggested a rewrite that began as follows:

Dear Friend:
Picture a shopper pushing a cart down a supermarket aisle. Like everybody else, she grabs different items from the shelves: a can of soup, a jar of peanuts, a few ears of fresh corn, a gallon of milk. Unlike everybody else, however, this particular shopper is wearing a blindfold. Although she’s blithely filling her cart, she doesn’t really know what she’s putting in it. And here’s the surprise ending: that shopper is you.

Which letter would you keep reading? Genetic engineering is both topical and controversial, and you don’t have to stretch to make it personal, but the first version diffuses all of the issue’s heat with abstract language. Version #2, on the other hand, is written to engage the reader’s imagination from word one.

So take another look at that press release you’re about to send — does it say you’re working to help bus and train riders, or are you still calling them “the transit dependent”? And that upcoming report on your worthy efforts to remove dams and return a river to its natural state: will anybody care that you have “produced a waterway that emulates the natural hydrograph”? When you turn every day stuff into multisyllabic jargon, you only build a wall between your audience and your message, and your message is too important to be shut out. Keep it simple. Say what you mean. Remember those four folks in the bar.

Solution to Game 1: the “Male with a beer” and the “17-yr. old Male.”



 free-range follow-up

From the “Messages are Everywhere” File
Is That a Story in Your Pocket.?

Since issue #1 of this newsletter, I’ve reiterated the point “everything you do carries your message,” and another striking example may be jingling in your pocket as you read this. Under the inspired direction of Philip Diehl, the U.S. Mint recently produced a new gold dollar coin bearing the image of Sacagawea, the Shoshone woman who guided Lewis and Clark in their historic expedition across America.


The reason the mint chose a Native American woman for the new dollar – as opposed to yet another dead president – is largely due to Diehl’s belief that a nation’s coins can make two kinds of change. “The inclusion of our storytelling and values, of the culture of the country” are part of a coin’s purpose, said Diehl in a recent New York Times interview. And now, from a government position that was touted as “passive” and “bureaucratic,” Diehl is changing the way we think about important people from America’s past.