George Lakoff wants to change your mind

Cognitive scientist George Lakoff thinks you can change minds by changing the frame of the debate.|

George Lakoff Lecture

Who: George Lakoff on “What happened? And what’s happening next?”

What: Praxis Peace Institute lecture

When: Sunday, Jan. 29, 2 p.m.

Where: Vintage House, 264 First St. E.

Tickets: Lecture (2 p.m.) $20; Workshop (3:45) $35; both $50. Available at

Lakoff can be heard on the radio program “On the Media” this weekend, Sunday, Jan. 15 at 2 p.m., KQED-FM. Further information and resources are available on his website,

George Lakoff is a cognitive scientist and professor of linguistics, which means he’s made his life’s work figuring out why people think the way they do – and what language has to do with it. Among his books are “Don’t Think of an Elephant” – now in a new edition – “Moral Politics” and “The Political Mind.”

He’s come up with several key theories about thought processes that are relevant to the world of politics, especially as we are on the cusp of a new presidential administration – and the ascendancy of a conservative world view at stark contrast with the Obama years.

He’ll be coming to Sonoma on Sunday, Jan. 29 to speak at the Vintage House senior center for the Praxis Peace Institute on the post-election subject, “What happened? And what’s happening next?”

The Index-Tribune spoke with Lakoff by phone last week, catching him as he was moving out of his UC Berkeley offices where he’s taught for the past 44 years, and between radio interviews for other media.

We asked him about Donald Trump, the concept of political “framing” – and why progressives just don’t get it.

You make the point that Donald Trump is a minority president. Why is that so important for people to verbalize and internalize?

Because it’s important to know what the majority of voters think. It is not the case that most people in America agree with Trump. It is very important that at the time that people are seeing the only alternative is to resist and protest, what they should be doing is exactly what Obama said in his farewell address: to act as citizens, and to be positive about the future.

You’ve talked a lot about “framing,” how the words and concepts we use to think with essentially define the world we live in. How can people use framing to reshape the dialog?

Remember when you attack Trump, you’re helping him. Chuck Schumer, in trying to deal with health care in the Senate, has a new phrase, “Make America sick again.” See the problem? Schumer doesn’t and Nancy Pelosi doesn’t. I’ve been writing this stuff for how many years and they still don’t get it.

Why is that slogan such a bad choice?

“Make America sick again” is an example of negative framing. Not only negative framing, but it’s framing that helps Trump. Because it sounds like “Make America great again,” it activates that in your brain. Which is often what happens with negative framing. That’s a well-known phenomenon, when you negate stuff the positive stuff gets activated

That’s why if I say, ‘Don’t think of an elephant,’ what do you think of? An elephant. If I say, ‘I’m not a crook,’ what do you think of? You’re a crook.

I first noticed this way back in the 1960s when I was teaching linguistic pragmatics. One of the examples I would teach is, a friend comes up to you and whispers in your ear, ‘Your wife is not having an affair.’

That’s the plot of “Othello.”

That’s exactly right. It is so obvious – and there is actual neuroscience behind it.

But why then can’t progressives grasp the mechanisms you’re talking about?

Because they went to college. If a conservative goes to college, chances are he is going to be studying some business economics, and there, there’s a course on marketing. Marketing professors study my field, how people really think. And they teach that marketing involves framing and metaphor and narrative and imagery and emotion. Every advertising agency knows this. So they learn how to market their ideas.

And progressives?

If you’re a progressive and you go to college, you study political science, law, public policy, economic theory, maybe sociology, and those fields do not teach how people really think. They don’t study cognitive science, they don’t study neuroscience or marketing. Instead they learn Enlightenment reason: What makes you a human being is reason, you’re a rational animal. This is from Descartes, 1650, “I think therefore I am.”

If you believe in Enlightenment reason, you believe that it does fit the world, that reason is logical, and that everyone, being a human being, has the same reason. Therefore, you should just be able to tell people the facts and they’ll reason to the right conclusion. Which we know doesn’t work.

How can you convince people who are entrenched in their way of thinking to change the framing? Can someone change the mind of a Trump or Clinton voter?

Let me explain how that works. What is a regulation, who does a regulation apply to? It applies to corporate people, mainly, or people in business. It doesn’t apply to you running your everyday life. So if you’re at home cooking dinner, no regulations apply to you. But if you are somebody that the regulations apply to, you’re being controlled. And you’re being controlled by the government. And you don’t like being controlled.

Then ask another question; Who do the regulations affect? They affect people. Other than the corporations, they affect the public. So if you shift your viewpoint from the corporations, you can then say, well what do the regulations mean to the public? They mean protection. That’s a different word, a different idea, and a different frame.

If you said to the public, we’re going to get rid of all protections, what would happen? People would say WHAT? If you say we’ll get rid of all protections in drugs, you’ll no longer be able to know you’re protected from poisonous drugs, drugs that can kill you. Or if you say we’re going to get rid of all protections in the SEC, so if you invest in stocks you won’t be protected from fraud.

That is how you think about reframing. You shift your viewpoint.

One of your concepts is opposing a Strict Father worldview with a Nurturant Parent viewpoint, authoritarian versus empathetic. What happens when a politicians doesn’t seem to have much room for empathy?

It has to be there. This is what’s called bi-conceptualism. What is a moderate? There is no “ideology of the moderates,” where all moderates agree on the same ideas. So a moderate conservative has some progressive views, maybe randomly distributed; a moderate progressive has some conservative views, maybe randomly distributed. But the point is, they have to have both world views at once where one is used for most things and the other is used for some things.

What’s an example?

If you go to evangelical churches, they will have childcare, they will have advisors giving you investment advice; if a family has been going to the church for a long time but their home is threatened, they’ll try to get them another place to live or maybe even get together build them a house.

Or take the military, a “strict father” organization – but even at a military base you have apartments for people who are on the base, you have free schooling, good schools, you have free medical care, cheap prices and discounts at the PX. And you never leave a wounded brother behind.

If you go to law school and you commit to being a conservative lawyer, the Federalist Society will help you get a good job with a law firm, and they might even pay off some of your law school expenses if you can’t afford to.

This is in-group nurturance, but in-group nurturance is real nurturance.

Contact Christian at

George Lakoff Lecture

Who: George Lakoff on “What happened? And what’s happening next?”

What: Praxis Peace Institute lecture

When: Sunday, Jan. 29, 2 p.m.

Where: Vintage House, 264 First St. E.

Tickets: Lecture (2 p.m.) $20; Workshop (3:45) $35; both $50. Available at

Lakoff can be heard on the radio program “On the Media” this weekend, Sunday, Jan. 15 at 2 p.m., KQED-FM. Further information and resources are available on his website,

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