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The Political MindReview - The Political Mind
Why You Can't Understand 21st-Century American Politics with an 18th-Century Brain
by George Lakoff
Viking, 2008
Review by Maura Pilotti, Ph.D.,
Aug 5th 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 32)

George Lakoff is a cognitive scientist who, for quite some time, has applied to politics his knowledge of how the human brain/mind processes information.  The enlightening results of this undertaking are evident in his latest book: The Political Mind: Why You Can't Understand 21st –Century American Politics with an 18th-Century Brain.  In it, Lakoff examines the functioning of the human brain/mind with the purpose of identifying the relationship between the format in which ideas, mostly involving public policy, are presented and their reception by the different constituencies of public opinion (i.e., us).  He focuses on frames, pre-existing knowledge structures that absorb, transform, and attribute value to incoming information.   The influence of frames on information processing is also prominently featured in his earlier work devoted to the American political process (e.g., Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think; Don't Think of an Elephant)Yet, in The Political Mind, Lakoff's treatment of the role that frames play in the functioning of the human brain/mind and thus of their impact on the political process is more complete, although no less insightful and direct.  

Lakoff's examination of the political process is well-argued because it not only relies on evidence collected by means of the scientific method but also is guided by the scientific method in his applications of the evidence to politics.  In his exploration of the functioning of the brain/mind, Lakoff starts with two key premises:  First, he reminds readers that rational thoughts and emotions are inextricably linked in the cognitive frames upon which voters rely to understand politics and to guide their behavior when in the voting booth.  Second, he emphasizes that most of the information processing that human beings conduct is unconscious and that even its outcomes (e.g., the understanding of specific issues) are not entirely comprehended by those who engaged in such processing.  The latter premise, he recognizes, leads to an apparently unsolvable conundrum.  Namely, how can individuals be in command of processes and outcomes that are beyond their awareness?  Are human beings destined to be the victims of their own frames as if they were vessels, which, during a tempest, become unable to determine the direction of their travel?  Lakoff forcefully argues that the first and most crucial step for controlling cognitive operations and their outcomes is knowledge of how these operations are performed in relation to existing cognitive frames.  He reminds us that the adult brain/mind is not an empty container but rather a collection of receptacles (i.e., frames) filled and shaped by early experiences.  Thus, he recommends that the information that one has processed be deconstructed in relation to the frames that have been unconsciously applied to the information when it was first encountered.  The goal, moral and commendable, is to ensure that the issues are fairly understood and that rational and equitable solutions are adopted.  But what does one do if an issue is novel and there does not appear to be a pre-existing frame for it? Lakoff argues that a frame should be created for it so that the above-mentioned goal can be reached.  An example of this possibility is provided by the section devoted to "privateering", the ongoing, widespread practice of privatizing the essential functions of government, which, by blending "privatization" and "profiteering", renders government powerless, unable to perform even the most basic function of protecting its citizens (See the American government's response in the aftermath of Katrina and the role of private contractors in foreign wars).

Of course, frames do not exist in isolation and they are not one-size packages.  On the contrary, there are different frames upon which human beings rely to process incoming information, from overreaching ones, which may categorize experiences in terms of well-being and ill-being, to more specific, concrete ones.  These frames may be connected with each other or may remain unconnected until external events activate them concurrently.  The type and strength of the connections between two or more conceptually separable frames are critical in determining how an issue will be understood (e.g., the war in Iraq as a moral choice or as a blood-for-oil enterprise).   Lakoff argues that there are two general types of connections: inhibitory and facilitatory. First, the concurrent activation of two or more conceptually different frames (e.g., morality and light; immorality and darkness) can bring them together.  Namely, in the future, when information presented to a person brings to mind one of these frames, the other is also likely to come to mind or more modestly to filter the information that enters the cognitive system of that person, how the information is interpreted and what emotions it triggers (e.g., morality is light; immorality is darkness).   Lakoff remarks that emotions can considerably increase the strength of the connections between/among originally independent frames (e.g., "war" and "terror" as in "war on terror"), thereby making one firmly inseparable from the other(s).   Alternatively, the activation of a frame can inhibit the information contained in other frames (e.g., pacifism and strength, thereby creating the false belief that a pacifist is a weak person)Lakoff also explains how inhibitory connections or lack of connectivity between/among frames can account for the coexistence of contrasting ideas and behaviors in the mind of a person without that person experiencing "cognitive dissonance" (i.e., any feeling of contradiction between being pro-life and believing that the death penalty is justified)In sum, in his discussion of frames and connectivity, Lakoff unveils a conceptual framework that makes available to readers knowledge critical for understanding themselves and others as either passive observers of or active participants in the political process.

Although the book in its entirety is instructive and engaging, Lakoff's concrete illustrations of how the human brain/mind processes information are by far the most likely to remain stamped in the reader's mind.  Clearly, his intention is to make people understand the political process and encourage an ethically sound and equitable handling of public policy issues.   He has succeeded.  As such, The Political Mind should serve as prerequisite reading for understanding the information the media (including newspapers, magazines, television, and the internet) purportedly report.  It is a read that not only will produce informed consumers of news but also will make consumers of such news aware of how gullible they can become when issues are presented within cognitive frames that unfairly distort the available facts and when news outlets repeat these "facts" ad infinitum. 

Although it is unquestionably the case that reading this book will empower consumers of news and will considerably change their understanding of the political process, other means exist can be equally powerful defenses against factual distortions and ideological manipulations.   As demonstrated by "War, Inc.", a recent film on "privateering", satire combined with a finely honed knowledge of critical facts can generate a frame that, by integrating the evidence that the mainstream media have rarely, sloppily, or fragmentarily reported, unveils a reality that could hardly be imagined by the American public.  Both Lakoff's work and "War, Inc." inform us, in qualitatively different ways, that empowerment results from knowledge.  TV shows such as "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report" are an almost daily reminder that this fundamental truth (i.e., knowledge = empowerment) cannot be ignored any longer.   

© 2008 Maura Pilotti

Maura Pilotti, Ph.D., Department of Psychology, Hunter College, New York


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