ASSOCIATES (2008, July, v. 15, no. 1)


Bear Thoughts #9: Ulterior Information

exner.gifFrank Exner, Little Bear
North Carolina Central University


Information, at least in the social sense, is a symbolic representation of work done on the idea plane (Exner, Little Bear, 2006). Ulterior Information is a symbolic representation of work done on the idea plane where the ordinary meaning of the symbols represent work on the idea plane that is driven by ulterior motives. In other words lies (even disinformation) result from the intent to deceive and Ulterior Information results from ulterior motivations. (Clearly, Ulterior Information includes lies and disinformation.)

For example, I am looking at some new cat food that we (my wife, Carol, and I) bought yesterday. One box, containing twelve cans, is called the “Florentine Collection”. I’m pretty sure our cats aren’t the target of this labeling (they don’t read English well). I’m equally sure that I’m supposed to be impressed and open my wallet wide (I do read English well and I am more gullible than they are).

Why write the column now? Isn’t this the political season? Isn’t this the time when ulterior motives reign supreme? Shouldn’t we just assume that all messages are bogus and go on? My internal cynic says yes, but my internal optimist says we should at least try to arm ourselves against those who would take advantage of us. And this is the time when ulterior motives reign supreme, so what better time to develop our analytical weapons.


Since motivation is the defining characteristic of Ulterior Information, truth may be considered irrelevant. It may be true or it may be false, so the truth of one message does not verify another.

The motives for sending a message (indeed the motives for receiving a message) are not evident from the content; they are evident from the message’s context. As long as a sender and receiver have different motives, a message’s content may be true or false (or, more commonly, somewhat true), but its context becomes paramount.


There are at least three kinds of Ulterior Information:

Poerksen (1995) first discussed what he called Plastic Words in a book by that name. These are words like information, resource, sexuality, and modernization which have moved in the past from general use into scientific jargon and then, with a modified meaning, back into the general vocabulary. Plastic words are incredibly hard to define and yet seem to be useable everywhere. In the special language of linguistics, plastic words lack denotation but are rich in connotation.

You have read sentences (messages) made from plastic words; they are the ones that make you go “What the heck did that say” even after the fourth reading. Far too many public messages are made up of plastic words. They mean many different things to as many different message recipients, and no one can tell what the original source intended. (Remember, an ulterior motive results in Ulterior Information.)

Words with slanted meaning may be the oldest form of Ulterior Information. These are words with either wide-ranging connotations that express equally wide-ranging meanings or different meanings in different contexts, words like hooker (sex worker or rug maker) or witch (evil woman or follower of an ancient religion). (For that matter, does it mean something that I put the negative meaning first in both examples?)

Much of our social communications are composed of words with slanted meanings (“The government is the enemy”) or analogies that express the speaker’s opinion rather than any kind of truth (“You’re making a mountain out of a mole hill”). When an individual’s primary communication appears to be thoughtful but is in fact emotional, Ulterior Information is being passed.

Words to convince are the best studied kind of Ulterior Information. Examples include:

These words seem to be taking over newspapers and TV lately (or not just lately, depending on your point of view). We all know that the message source’s motivation is to convince me of their rightness.

Television advertising represents a paradigmatic example of Ulterior Information. It is something we are all familiar with but may not fully understand. As a member of the audience, you feel like (at least the advertisers hope you feel like) you know how their product will answer one or more of your problems.

The advertiser, on the other hand, hopes that you feel a new pressure to purchase their product (whether or not you really need it). In some cases they first insert the problem in your mind and then tell you the one thing (their product) that will resolve it; in other cases their product will resolve a problem that everybody has (at least they can tell you it does).

Advertising is Ulterior Information because the information producer is motivated by one thing (product sales) and the information receiver is motivated by another thing (health or beauty or youth or whatever). If the information provider has an ulterior motive for the content or form of a message, in other words, the message is Ulterior Information.


I have six suggestions that you can apply to help minimize damage from Ulterior Information:

First consider the message’s source. There is probably a history – were previous communications truthful or to your advantage? Each individual is part of a group – does this group communicate truthfully or to your advantage? Messages based on emotions are hard to analyze – is the message trying to frighten you?

Next, give added truth points to the individual whose message doesn’t advance her or his case. If a message harms its source (e.g., an active-duty general who speaks out against a war), it is very credible.

Then ask yourself who gains and who loses from the position that the source wants you to take. If both of you gain, the potential for Ulterior Information is neutral. If the source gains but you lose, Ulterior Information is likely. But if you gain and the source loses, the message is probably Ulterior Information free.

Examine academic and social credentials. We library workers are used to doing this with reference answers or cataloging decisions, but we should apply the same standards in our daily interactions. But remember, possession of academic degrees don’t imply honorable intentions.

Finally, do judge the book by its cover (you will anyway if you’re human), but leave open the possibility that the cover is lying. In most cases the cover tells you what the publisher wants you to think, but that may not be what is between the covers. In the late 1970s I saw a mass market paperback book called The Monk by Mathew Gregory Lewis at a drug store book rack in Ohio. The cover made it look like a typical romance of the time. I just happened to know it was ‘Monk’ Lewis’ most famous book, first published in 1796, but I still had to look at the back cover. So judge the book by its cover, but check.


So what does all this mean to you? It may feel like there is a new category of information to worry about, but not really. There is a new category of information that I hope will help everyone live their life. Please let me know what you think and whether the idea of Ulterior Information works for you.


Exner, Little Bear, Frank. (2006). “Bear Thoughts #2.” Associates (v. 12, no. 3). <>

Poerksen, Uwe. (1995). Plastic words: the tyranny of a modular language. (University Park, Pennsylvania; Pennsylvania University Press)

Frank, Little Bear is a Squamish Indian originally from British Columbia, Canada. Currently he lives in Durham, North Carolina and is at North Carolina Central University’s School of Library and Information Sciences.