Thursday, June 26, 2008

My Notes on a George Lakoff Lecture on His Latest Book


[George Lakoff teaches at the University of California at Berkeley in the field of Cognitive Science and Linguistics. His new book is titled, The Political Mind: Why You Can't Understand 21st-Century Politics with an 18th-Century Brain.]

Why do people vote against their self-interest? Why do Democrats cower before attacks from the other side?

Democrats operate from a philosophy that might be called the “Theory of Mind”, which says that all thought is reasoned, rational, and conscious. This philosophy contends that politics is disembodied and abstract, the purpose of which is to pursue self-interest.


Now we know from recent research on the mind that ALL OF THESE BELIEFS ARE FALSE. We now know, for example, that 85% of all reasoning is UNCONSCIOUS. It is a PHYSICAL process over which we have little conscious control. The brain is structured to run a body via trillions of neurons. The brain can’t think just any way at all; it doesn’t always fit the world as it is. Furthermore, it can’t be rational without being emotional.

Stroke or injury can destroy our ability to feel emotion. How, then, would we know what to want? We wouldn’t. We MUST HAVE EMOTION IN ORDER TO REASON.

Cultural Narratives

[Ed.: Please excuse me if I take some undue liberty here in explaining complex processes in the brain about which I know very little. I’m interpreting my somewhat cryptic notes here and may not have this technically accurate, despite my attempts to sort some of it out using Wikipedia.]

There are two chemicals in the brain that regulate our emotions: dopamine and epinephrine (adrenaline). Dopamine is associated with reward-seeking behavior, such as the desire for food or other pleasant stimulation—what Lakoff calls “good emotions”. Epinephrine is associated with “fight or flight” responses and stress—what Lakoff calls “bad emotions”. When politicians’ words trigger the dopamine response, they are thought of as “good guys or gals” and they tend to win; when they trigger the epinephrine response, they are thought of as “bad guys or gals” and they tend to lose.


Shortly after beginning his lecture, a young man brought Dr. Lakoff a paper cup filled with what appeared to be a hot liquid. Upon receiving it, Dr. Lakoff quipped that, just as conservatives suspect of all liberals, he likes his latte. Later, he used the cup to illustrate what he means by “framing”. When a person hears the word “cup”, he or she makes an unconscious association through neurons in his or her brain. He or she forms a mental picture of what a cup looks like and its function—the very definition of a “cup”.

Sometimes, these neural pathways form associations that have moral connotations (metaphors). For example, the word “more” is associated with “up”, as in “fill it up”. The “less” is associated with “down”, as in “the stock market is down”. Affectionate people are thought of as “warm”; indifferent people are thought of as “cold”. These associations are physically activated in the brain instantaneously, without conscious thought. Each time the associations are made, the synapses—the physical connections between nerve endings in the brain—are strengthened (they spread and grow). Over time, they become very strong—second nature, so to speak.

In terms of politics, we as individuals are first “governed” by our nuclear families. In Lakoff’s view, there are TWO IDEALS OF THE FAMILY. If you’ve read either of Lakoff’s books on framing, Moral Politics or Don’t Think of an Elephant, you’re familiar with these.

The first he calls the “strict father” model. In this model, children are raised by a mother and father with clearly defined roles, with the father being dominant. Misbehavior must be punished, often physically, even at times painfully. The values behind this model are self-sufficiency, competency, and ambition. It is felt that these qualities will lead to success in life and, therefore, productive contribution to society. Possession of these qualities is deemed to be moral. Therefore, wealth is an indication that the person possesses these qualities in abundance and should be left alone by government. (Lakoff points out—notably--that many persons with this outlook on life had happy childhoods, despite having to submit to corporal punishment.) In these families, the parents believe that when the child reaches the age of 25 or so, they should be able to survive entirely on their own. Likewise, government should leave people alone to make their own decisions in most areas of life, including how they spend their money.

The second family model is what he calls “nurturing parent”. This value seeks to impart in its offspring the values of empathy, responsibility for others, and self-fulfillment. The duty of the family is to protect the child while she or he is vulnerable and empower the child to pursue happiness as s/he sees fit. Out of this view of the family grows the idea that government, too, should protect and empower the people. Empowerment is achieved via the courts and a regulated stock market and banking system.

Lakoff talked about “mirror neurons”. When you see or hear someone laugh, we tend to laugh with them. (Think of the laugh track on sitcoms.) The same neurons in our brains are activated when seeing someone else laugh as are activated when someone tells us a joke. This is the source of empathy.

Voting against self-interest


Conservatives have for forty years understood the connection between winning elections and framing. (Liberals have yet to get it.) If you can create in the minds of your listeners or seers a connection between an neutral political device, say, taxes, and “bad emotions”, you can change the way they think about your candidate. One way to do that is to ALWAYS associate two concepts together in a frame that gets the epinephrine flowing. (Remember that epinephrine is the chemical in the brain associated with “fight or flight”.) So, if we talk about “tax relief”, the brain AUTOMATICALLY AND UNCONSCIOUSLY associates “taxes” with “pain”. Combine that with the “strict father” notion of government as a body that neither empowers nor protects but merely gets in the way of “the market” and you have built a strong case for voting for the anti-tax candidate WITHOUT BOTHERING WITH A SINGLE FACT.

This is why it is so difficult to win political arguments. You cannot change someone’s mind without changing their brain. [This is why I have so little faith in bipartisanship in Congress. The only way to pass progressive legislation is to numerically overwhelm the opposition.—Ed.]

Democrats used to be champions of the working class (remember the New Deal?). Because of the Republicans’ effective use of frames, Dems are now looked upon by many as “liberal elitists”.

We all have BOTH parent models in our brains. A moderate has both models on political issues. But there is no such thing as a “moderate parenting model”. On some issues, one neuron pair can neutralize another neuron pair, making the individual “liberal” on some issues and “conservative” on others. Joe Lieberman is a “hawk” on the war and a “liberal” socially. Chuck Hagel is for peace in Iraq but conservative on other issues.

People vote against their own economic interests because of what Lakoff calls “conservative populism”. (Lakoff pointed out that neither Thomas Frank, author of What’s the Matter with Kansas, nor Al Gore, author of The Assault on Reason, seems to grasp this concept.) Conservatives who love the outdoors, while they might oppose smart growth legislation, may team up with environmentalists to stop development that would diminish fishing or hunting opportunities. Some self-described “conservative” entrepreneurs are quite liberal in their business practices. Pro-labor “liberals” may be rabidly anti-immigrant.

There is hope for dialogue between liberals and conservatives. But, first, we must get past the argument over specific policies and “the facts” and get to the question, “What do you care about?”. Get your “opponent” to talk about what’s in their hearts. Perhaps you’ll find something in common that you both value—caring, empathy, freedom, or fairness.


There are two means of achieving bipartisanship. For Sen. Clinton, bipartisanship means that the progressives move to the right, meeting the opposition half-way. For Sen. Obama, bipartisanship means finding the conservatives who have liberal values on a particular issue, such as John McCain on campaign finance reform or Church Hagel on setting a timetable to withdraw from Iraq.

[This was the end of his talk. He then took Q&A from the audience. Most of the questions were about how to frame the case for selling ballot initiatives or legislation. The following are my notes from that back-and-forth…]

On the Peter Barnes’ Carbon-Cap-and-Dividend bill before Congress:

Speaker on the philosophy behind the bill: We all own the air. Polluters should pay for polluting. If you want to impose a fee for the extraction of polluting fuels, do so at the source. Ratchet down the cap on CO2 emissions by 2% per year, meaning that the cost of polluting will go up. Make the oil and gas companies bid against each other for the right to pollute by auctioning off pollution credits. The money raised—estimated to be about $1000 per person for 150 million taxpayers—would be distributed equally to each citizen.

Lakoff on oil and gas severance taxes: Don’t call anything a “severance tax”. This is bad framing. “Oil depletion fee” would be good.

Lakoff on other questions: Liberals must take back the good words that we have forfeited: freedom and liberty (others?). “Single-payer health care”—bad framing. “Doctor-patient-run health care” is better. (HB676—good). Say what you really mean. Say what values are behind your idea. Then, say why it isn’t crazy. [Show how your values are served by your policy proposal.—Ed.]

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