Presuppositions in linguistics and NLP

PresuppositionsAlthough presuppositions are covered by the classic NLP syllabus, it is often misunderstood. It's a simple building block of the NLP Meta Model - but because of its use in hypnosis and suggestion I think the humble presupposition deserves its own page on!

What is a presupposition?

A presupposition is a structure of language that makes unverbalised assumptions. For example, I could say to you "I'm not going to Burger King again!" which would make the presupposition that I had been to Burger King before. A devious barrister in a courtroom might ask a man "have you stopped beating your wife?" to give the presupposition that the man used to (or still does) beat his wife. These are obvious presuppositions and are only really worth mentioning quickly to show an example of what a presupposition is.

Increasingly often you can hear people saying things like "I know MY religion is right! Why? Because I feel it in my heart!" The subtle presupposition here is the word "why" which is intended to fill in for us. By skipping over it quickly, we are prone to accept that we were probably going to ask "why" ourselves. In fact, we did not ask why, and this kind of subtle presupposition is made very useful for people who want to steer our conversations in a particular direction.

Presuppositions + Subtlety = Power

A presupposition gets much more powerful with subtlety. Ideally, when someone is in a confused (suggestible) state, a cleverly-worded presupposition can be used to make the person believe your presupposed statement.

I saw a good example of this in the container of a Macdonald's burger the other day. Macdonalds (as much as I dislike the company) is known for its clever use of NLP in advertising and marketing. On the inside of the box, under the lid, was printed the following statement in large, red lettering:

NLP is abundant  in advertising

"Unique? You might even say it's delicious!"

This suggestion, which you will read probably about the exact time you take your first bite of the mass-produced burger, is that the burger is delicious. But the statement also makes two devious presuppositions: Firstly by saying "Unique?" they are presupposing that the statement has been made that the burger is unique, and they are answering your statement. Secondly, they are presupposing that YOU made that statement by saying "You might even say it's delicious!".

In fact, I did not state that the burger was unique (it certainly isn't) nor do I believe it is therefore delicious. It is simply a large company resorting to a mild form of hypnosis* in an attempt to brainwash me into giving them more money on a future occasion.

Presuppositions in hypnosis*

Presuppositions are the foundation of hypnosis induction. Master of magic and suggestion Derren Brown advises that the best method of hypnosis induction is a rapid series of presuppositions. The format of choice is "As and So" which is a template that can be applied to anything that is happening and turn it into evidence that the hypnotic state is increasing. For example, "As you sit there in your seat you feel more relaxed, so too you notice your eyelids becoming heavier. And as you eyes become heavier and heavier, so too they become harder and harder to keep open."

Each of these statements take a truth (you are sitting in your seat) you are bound to feel relaxed, and the statement presupposes that when you feel more relaxed you also feel your eyelids becoming heavier. And because you are feeling more relaxed, you automatically accept that your eyelids must be getting heavier. And so it happens. Although these presuppositions are stated only slightly deviated from the truth, they become very powerful suggestions that are increasingly easy to follow.

The future of fast food boxes

The future of fast food boxes

Presuppositions in conversation

Let's imagine you're talking to a friend, having a pleasant conversation. And now, a third person comes along who you know to be fairly abrasive. What do you say to get them to leave, without seeming to be rude or inviting a confrontation? Think about it, what kind of thing would you say? A lot of us will end up saying - and I'm sure we've all done this a few times before - something along the lines of "Well it was good seeing you again, I'll see you at the next one I'm sure, haha?" then hold out your hand for them to shake it goodbye. More than likely, you'll add some body language signals by standing next to your friend and facing in the same direction as them.

When you put it straight out there, it's quite obviously a presupposition that they are moving along, and you're saying goodbye. Quite often, the intruder will want to mirror your politeness and go along with your presupposition, then wonder away feeling mysteriously like they've been kicked out of something, but probably won't be able to put their finger on it.

Okay! Maybe my example is a bit rough around the edges but I'm sure I've made my point - presuppositions are powerfully subtle suggestion tools. In fact, most of us already use them daily, but maybe don't realise they are called presuppositions.