The Mix

News flash: Lakoff is correct

M.R.I. scanners show "the facts will not set us free."
As the New York Times writer Benedict Carey reports:
"Researchers have long known that political decisions are strongly influenced by unconscious emotional reactions, a fact routinely exploited by campaign consultants and advertisers. But the new research suggests that for partisans, political thinking is often predominantly emotional."
Using M.R.I. scanners, neuroscientists have now tracked what happens in the politically partisan brain when it tries to digest damning facts about favored candidates or criticisms of them. The process is almost entirely emotional and unconscious, the researchers report, and there are flares of activity in the brain's pleasure centers when unwelcome information is being rejected.

"Everything we know about cognition suggests that, when faced with a contradiction, we use the rational regions of our brain to think about it, but that was not the case here," said Dr. Drew Westen, a psychologist at Emory and lead author of the study, to be presented Saturday at meetings of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology in Palm Springs, Calif.

Well, folks, this is pretty interesting stuff when it comes to figuring out how to communicate ideas and change minds... it is very hard to change anyone's partisan mind. And this is no surprise to George Lakoff, who has been banging away at us, telling us that in communicating ideas to people, we have to understand the emotional reaction to language that evokes frames that are part of of people's world views.

Lots of us liberals and progressives stubbornly believe that if you present people with the facts, they will make the right decision -- do the right thing. But Lakoff has argued, and not always getting a receptive audience, that that notion is false."It's in our inheritance from the enlightenment. Where, in the enlightenment that everybody is a rational person, all you have to do is just tell them the facts, they'll reason to the right conclusion." But that is wrong.

Lakoff adds: "And of course the Republicans have learned that it's false. They've set up a frame, they set up a narrative, and they set it up in terms of their values. And they get it as part of normal, everyday language and normal everyday thought. Once they've done that, the facts are irrelevant unless the Democrats can learn to re-frame the issues from their point of view, and then make the facts fit other frames. Framing is about getting language that fits your worldview. It is not just language. The ideas are primary -- and the language carries those ideas, evokes those ideas."

In terms of the chances of overcoming the biases that have been established in people, the author of the study Dr. Westen says, "It is possible to override these biases, but you have to engage in ruthless self-reflection to say, 'All right, I know what I want to believe, but I have to be honest.'" He added, "It speaks to the character of the discourse that this quality is rarely talked about in politics."
Don Hazen is the executive editor of AlterNet.
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Election 2018