At first glance, psychology and politics may not appear to have much in common, but look a little deeper, and one finds an interesting world of intersections and commonalities. Indeed, politics, policy decisions, and political ideology have roots in how people think, the way we view the world, and that’s where psychology enters in.
And in recent years, no one has been more active in exploring and writing about the intersection between political thought and psychology than linguist George Lakoff. In 2009, Lakoff published his book, “The Political Mind: A Cognitive Scientist’s Guide to Your Brain and Its Politics.” Early in his book, Lakoff warns: “Please do not confuse labels with modes of thought. People who call themselves ‘conservatives’ may use progressive modes of thought in certain areas. Conversely,” he continues, “people who call themselves ‘liberals’ may think in a conservative mode in certain issue areas.”
As a linguist and cognitive scientist, Lakoff appears to be more interested in how people think and how they come to form political beliefs and views rather than the contents of the beliefs themselves. For instance, Lakoff describes how our minds lean toward “sematic roles.” This means that, in politics, people may tend to think of specific narratives and the characters that live in those stories. “The Hero,” “The Victim,” “The Villian,” and “The Helpers . . . “ all may remain central characters in the election drama.
To put it simply, according to Lakoff, the human brain is naturally wired to think of (or ‘frame’) events in this way . . . as a mental story. What’s more, these stories are often unconscious. Early in his work, Lakoff writes: “David Rieff was right. Politics is very much about cultural narratives.” In other words, whether we tend to think of ourselves as belonging to a particular political party or accepting a specific political ideology (“conservative” or “liberal”), it’s all about the narrative—or story—running through our heads.
In an earlier work, “Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate,” Lakoff establishes the idea of mental “frames.” Put simply, “[f]rames are mental structures that shape the way we see the word,” writes Lakoff. He continues: “We also know frames through language. All words are defined relative to conceptual frames. When you hear a word, its frame . . . is activated in your brain . . . Because language activates frames, new language is required for new frames.”
In sum, when reflecting upon the upcoming presidential election, remember: people tend to think in frames and narratives. Whether liberal or conservative or anywhere in between, individuals tend to interpret events through their own political narrative, and this has a strong basis in how our brain works.
Lakoff, G. (2004). Don’t think of an elephant: Know your values and frame the debate. Chelsea Green Publishing.
Lakoff, G. (2009). The Political Mind: A cognitive scientist’s guide to your brain and its politics.” Penguin Publishing.