Learning from Lakoff

Quintessential George Lakoff at the Berkeley coffee shop. (BAP photos)

I recently had the privilege of working with the brilliant and delightful Professor George Lakoff at University of California, Berkeley. I went to study framing. I learned far more than I ever imagined about how our minds actually work.

These discoveries in cognitive science elevate Lakoff’s work on political framing from “good advice” to “critical truths we ignore at our own peril”. We have to understand the foundation of our competing moral systems if we are to succeed in reaching people and overturning the Right’s dominance over our public debate.

George Lakoff is considered one of the top gurus of political communication, best known for his work on framing and the foundations of conservative versus progressive value systems. Check out his best-selling “Don’t Think of an Elephant” for more on that.

What many people may not know, is that Professor Lakoff’s contributions to political communication are dwarfed by his enormous contributions to Cognitive Science. As the driving force behind the field of Cognitive Linguistics, Lakoff is at the very cutting edge of our understanding about how human beings actually think. 

Cognitive metaphor theory is the first comprehensive model that not only effectively explains why we use language the way we do across the globe, but also provides testable hypotheses about how our thinking relates to our brain structure and neurological activity. So far, hundreds of psychological experiments have backed up this theory.

I am not going to try to explain cognitive metaphor theory. It took me 16 weeks and more than 10,000 pages of reading just to get the general idea.

What I can pass along to you here are my takeaways for how this information impacts our work as political communicators.

  • When we learn anything, we literally grow bundles of neurons. Concepts actually physically exist in our brains.
  • Words and ideas we experience together grow physically connected in our minds.
  • The more we experience words or concepts together, the stronger the connections between them grow, and the greater the likelihood that when we hear one word, we’ll automatically think of the other. (If I hear “Liberal” – I think “Taxes”. It’s ingrained like a tree stump I can’t dig out of my yard!)
  • Metaphor isn’t just the use of colorful expressions. Metaphor is how we take what we know about direct life experience and use it to give structure to, and reason about, complex concepts. Those metaphorical connections also physically exist in our brains.
  • Different metaphors for the same concept cause people to reason differently about that concept, to perceive certain conclusions as common sense or logical, and inhibit other conclusions.
  • It only takes a word to neurologically activate an entire metaphor and inhibit alternative metaphors.
  • Most of the metaphors we use to understand important concepts about values, society, government, etc. are grown in our brains while we are still too young to be aware of what’s happening.
  • These metaphors usually cohere around one or the other of two major world views/value systems, conservative or progressive, depending on our family structure and how we use it metaphorically to reason about other social institutions. (You can read all about this in Moral Politics).
  • You can’t un-grow these neural connections as an adult.

What does this mean for us?

  • We have to totally abandon the idea of moving to the center to appeal to swing voters. It is fundamentally erroneous.
  • We have to find and appeal to people who have existing neural structures that contain both conservative and progressive metaphorical models of important concepts. Lakoff calls these people biconceptuals. Examples: people who might be conservative on economic issues and progressive on social issues, or conservative in the home and progressive at work.
  • We have to activate and strengthen their progressive neural connections by using progressive trigger words and metaphors and repeating them over and over.
  • We have to encourage people to apply their existing progressive metaphors to other areas of life.
  • We have to stop using conservative language to fight conservative ideas. Merely repeating words that activate conservative frames – even when we are fighting against them – strengthen those conservative frames and cause people to use conservative “logic”. (Repeated exposure to conservative framing even causes us to unconsciously perceive their arguments as making more and more sense, simply because the neural networks are becoming stronger.)
  • We have to use the language of progressive values (responsibility, the public, revenue, investment, etc.) and aggressively promote our entire system of morality.
  • We have to use every communication, every day, as an opportunity to connect to, repeat and reinforce our Progressive world view and value system, just like the Right does.

So why aren’t we already doing this?

I first connected with Professor Lakoff over our shared frustration with the Left’s inability to let go of the “rational actor” model. Some time back in the 1950’s, the advertising world accepted the fact that people make decisions emotionally rather than rationally. Cognitive metaphor theory tells us that what feels rational to people, depends entirely on which metaphors they grew up with.

Somehow, after 40 years of failure, our guys still cling to the idea that somehow, if we could do a better job of explaining our policies to people, they would have to rationally conclude that it would be in their best interest to vote for us. It is high time our folks accepted the fact that “rational” is relative. Different metaphors = different logic. If we promote progressive values using the language of progressive metaphors, our policy positions will feel logical to people.

This is not going to be easy. But it’s necessary. We have to stop reacting to public opinion and start driving it. We have to stop the tunnel vision around our individual agendas and start articulating our common world view. We would all do well to read fewer polls and start reading more Lakoff.

You can start right now with this marvelous and very accessible piece  – Words That Don’t Work.

I learned more in my semester with George Lakoff than I have learned in any other comparable period in my life, and I had an absolutely marvelous time doing it. Professor Lakoff is astoundingly productive and yet makes the time to nurture students – even unofficial ones like me. He is delightful company, incomparably brilliant, relentlessly intellectually challenging, a deeply committed Progressive, a world class foodie, and a great friend. I miss him and the whole gang at Berkeley, and hope to get back there soon.

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