The Political Mind
I just finished reading George Lakoff’s book The Political Mind. If you’re not familiar with him, he’s a cognitive linguist at Berkeley. That means that he researches the ways in which language use reflects how the human brain works. He’s known for his work concerning metaphors and how central they are to how we think. It’s pretty interesting work.
But he also writes about politics, and that’s what this book is about. He claims that one of the reasons the American political system often appears dysfunctional is that it is based on a flawed premise. His argument is that the founding fathers wrote the Constitution around the premise that people are rational actors who will seek to maximize their own interests. This is key to the capitalism of Adam Smith, which views the free market as a way for these rational actors to reach an equilibrium which maximizes the benefits to the society as a whole.
Lakoff argues that the assumption that we’re rational actors is bunk. He says that modern cognitive science shows that something like 98% of the “conscious decisions” we make are actually made by our unconscious. The “rational” reasons we give for them are actually confabulations which are made up after the fact. He highlights a number of interesting experiments where results which the subjects’ believed were resulting from conscious decisions were actually affected by things the subjects were not consciously aware of.
He argues that our political decisions are one of those areas that is strongly affected by factors we’re not conscious of. This means that it is possible for politicians (like advertisers) to tap into these factors to get people to support actions which aren’t in their self interest. The key to doing this is establishing a frame. A frame is a conceptual framework that we use to understand a situation. It’s sort of a story with slots for the different players. We reuse frames like metaphors. When we encounter a new and unusual situation, we attempt to find a frame which we’ve used previously which we can use to structure our understanding of the situation. Once we do that, we fit all of the players in this situation into the predefined slots in the frame. By using loaded phrases like war on terror a politician can establish the frame you use to understand the situation. Once they’ve done this, solutions to a problem that don’t fit into the frame you’re using are basically invisible to you. It’s important to watch out for frames in politics. If you let a political opponent establish the frame, then you’ve already lost the negotiation before it starts.
He also argues that our understanding of politics and government tends to use a frame that is established during our early interactions with our family. There are basically two different frames people have for family life which they tend to use to understand political questions. He refers to these as the Strict Father and Nurturant Parent frames. Instead of viewing people as conservative or progressive, he suggests that you consider which of these two frames they use in a particular situation. A conservative would tend to use the Strict Father frame in a lot of situations, while a progressive would tend to use the Nurturant Parent frame. But very few people always use one or the other. It’s very common for the subconscious to choose different frames for different situations (e.g. fiscal vs. social conservatism).
Portions of the book do get a bit over the top and strident, but there is one thing I did like about it. A lot of books like this tell you how the author thinks things work, but leave you wondering what you can do to change things. Lakoff actually has a chapter where he tries to use modern neuroscience to explain how to achieve your goals in politics. The most important suggestion is to start the conversation on subjects where the other person uses the family frame which you would like them to apply in the situation in which the negotiation is actually going to occur. The reason is that by getting their brain used to using that frame, you make it easier to get them to use it in a different domain. An example of this approach might be the way in which Obama engaged Rick Warren on questions about helping the poor. By getting religious conservatives to use an empathetic frame, he might have been making it easier for them to apply that same frame in a different situation later.
Anyways, there’s a lot of stuff in this book to make you think, and a few which will make you want to yell. It’s worth a read.