Politics and Cognitive Science

Week of: 
April 13, 2008
What is it: 

Can cognitive science explain the difference between liberals and conservatives?  Do we elect our presidents on the basis of stale metaphors and the manipulations of pernicious language mavens? We put these questions to George Lakoff, Professor of Linguistics at UC Berkeley and author of Thinking Points: Communicating Our American Values and Vision.

Listening Notes: 

First, John and Ken reflect on the way our brains process political jargon. For example, phrases such as ‘tax relief’ and ‘socialized medicine’ invoke a frame of notions like ‘taxes are an affliction that need to be relieved’ and ‘socialized medicine is medical care rationed by an overbearing government.’

Then guest George Lakoff joins the program to broaden our understanding of mental associations and politics. He describes the beginning of his professional interest in politics--during the 1994 election season he began applying his expertise as a linguist to the question of why certain sets of seemingly unrelated beliefs are endorsed by conservatives and other sets are endorsed by progressives.

Conservatives, Lakoff says, are much better at conveying their beliefs to the public because they use marketing skills, like repetition to drive their arguments home. By repeating metaphoric phrases like ‘tax relief’ and ‘socialized medicine’, conservatives capitalize on the fact that 98% of our thought is unconscious to influence the way we think about taxes and universal health care.

And while conservatives excel, Lakoff says, progressives lag behind. The problem with progressives, he says, is that they still believe in ‘enlightenment reason’—the idea that our thoughts are conscious, dispassionate, logical and universal. Progressives do not use marketing techniques to influence our subconscious mental processes nearly as often as conservatives do because progressives assume our minds are objectively rational while the truth is, in Ken’s words, that “the human mind is a mess.” Our minds jump from idea to idea in a much messier fashion than ‘enlightenment reason’ suggests.

Ken worries that progressives should be learning how to escape from metaphoric frames instead of learning how to beat conservatives to it. John disagrees, even back in Aristotle’s day rhetoric was a critical part of one’s education, it’s important to know how to persuade. Lakoff agrees with John. Framing, he says, is simply a function of the way we think; we need framing in order to speak the truth. Our goal, Lakoff asserts, ought to be to educate voters about framing--teaching them how to decipher the values behind political frames and determine whether those values correspond with their own.

Now, John wonders whether there is room for un-framed discussion in politics, honest, un-framed conversation seems far better than increased framing. Ken shares his concern, arguing that one of the more appealing assumptions made by enlightenment reason is the idea that we can adopt an objective stance toward our own thoughts.

Lakoff disagrees; he insists that there is no ‘enlightenment reason’. Your brain operates along particular patterns automatically and you can’t control these subconscious processes. All discussion is framed, period.

In the end, Ken, John and Lakoff agree that understanding framing is vital to understanding political rhetoric, and they agree to disagree about the extent to which our conscious thoughts are controlled by our unconscious.

  • Roving Philosophical Reporter (Seek to 4:26): It’s all about message, mechanics and money -- Zoe Corneli speaks with a political consultant about winning votes and getting elected.


George Lakoff, Professor of Linguistics, University of California Berkeley

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