With the 2020 Presidential Election here, politics and political ads have seemed to be everywhere. And regardless of which candidate takes the presidential prize this week, the human brain seems to play a role in how we think about politics – whether we are aware of it or not.
In his book, “The Political Brain,” author George Lakoff outlines the differences between how liberals and conservatives think.
“Morality and politics are embodied ideas, not abstract one,” Lakoff writes. “[A]nd they mostly function in the cognitive unconscious—in what your brain is doing that you cannot see.”
In other words, individuals may not always be aware of the “frames” they are using to see the world though. According to Lakoff, cognitive – or mental – frames are “…are among the cognitive structures we think with.” Lakoff is a linguist, someone who studies language, so he always places emphasis on language and how it is used in a political context. Narratives, or storytelling, also play an important role in how we think about politics.
“Politics is very much about cultural narratives,” Lakoff writes. He continues: “We know from cognitive science and neuroscience that such narratives are fixed within neural circuits of our brains. We know that they can be activated and function unconsciously, automatically, as a matter of reflex.”
What is interesting, then, is that conservatives and liberals “do not just have different goals and values,” Lakoff writes. “They have different modes of thought.”
To put all of the above in context, it may be useful to keep all of this in mind during a contentious election year. The issues and policy matter, but so too do morals, cognitive frames, and different ways of looking at the world. According to Lakoff, then, it is words, images, and symbols that nudge us in one direction or another when it involves the political party and political ideology that we adhere to.
“Framing is not just a matter of slogans,” Lakoff writes. “It is a mode of thought, a mode of action, and a sign of character.” He continues: “It is a general finding about frames that if a strongly held frame doesn’t fit the facts, the facts will be ignored and the frame will be kept.”
In other words, liberals and conservatives have different ways of thinking . . . and it extends well beyond policy disagreements. Some of the more conservative frames, for example, include concepts such as “authority,” “obedience,” and “discipline.” Some liberal frames, on the other hand, include the concept of “openness” and “equality.”
Finally, political frames – how we think about events, issues, and policy – play a role in our politics.
Lakoff, G. (2004). Don’t think of an elephant. Chelsea Green Publishing. White River Junction, Vermont.
Lakoff, G. (2009). The Political Mind. Penguin Publishing. New York, NY.