Brain Research Project. Language and Thinking. Framing. George Lakoff.


 Language and Thinking

Language is at the heart of argument and perception, and language can be manipulated so successfully that people focus on individual words and phrases. Arguments are “framed” to appeal to values and belief systems. For example, in his book, Don’t Think of an Elephant, George Lakoff discusses the two dominant frames of American culture as seen through the metaphor of “family”: the strict father and the nurturing parent. Sometimes we are in the “strict father” frame in U.S. politics, and if you look at how the federal governments have achieved their goals during 15-10 years, you can see evidence of the strict father frame clearly. The strict father protects the family in a dangerous world and teaches the children right from wrong; the nurturing parent uses empathy and responsibility (Lakoff 7-12). Once the frame is established, people tend to buy into the frame’s rhetoric rather than operate through individual issues, even if those issues are in their own self-interest.  The overall analogy takes precedence.

List examples of words and phrases associated with “strict father” and words and phrases associated with “nurturing parent”. 

Supplementary reading:

“Don’t Think of An Elephant: Notes & Review”

“Don’t Think of An Elephant” (2004) analyzes how political framing sways public opinion, determines voting patterns, and even changes people’s political orientation.

Lakoff’s presentation 59 min.

How Brain Thinks.


(Links to an external site.)

George Lakoff pt2 – Frameworks, Empathy and Sustainability

Full Summary

About The Author: George Lakoff is a cognitive scientist and linguist. 

#1. We See The World Through Frames

Lakoff says that frames are “mental structures that shape the way we see the world”.

Frames sit deep in our mind, but can be activated unconsciously by catch-phrases, references and simple words.

Frame Activation

When a frame is already in place, it can be activated through words. Such as, when you hear a certain word, a frame connected to that word in your brain is activated. 

This is important because even when you negate a frame, that frame still gets activated.
That means that when you argue against an opponent using their language and words, you activate their frames. 

Thus, when you criticize your opponent with their words, you are reinforcing their messages.

Moral of the story: you must develop your own frames and say what you want to say with your own words.

#2. Frames Can Change Personalities

If a moderate person who is partly conservative hears conservative arguments and messages over and over again, he will grow more conservative-leaning synapses.

And, over time, he will also become more conservative.

#3. You Need Frames Before You Can Activate Them

Frames do get activated by words, but framing isn’t simply coming up with fancy names.

To activate a frame, there should be a frame first.

And creating a frame entails repeating a message over and over until it becomes ingrained in our brains.

As George Lakoff says:

Reframing is more a matter of accessing what we already believe unconsciously, making it conscious, and repeating it till it enters normal public discourse.
It doesn’t happen overnight.


Because long-term concepts are instantiated in our brain and do not change overnight or by simply being told “facts”.

#4. Facts Only Matter if Morally Framed

Facts do matter, but only if framed in terms of their moral importance.

This is because if the facts don’t fit the moral frames you have in your brain, then you will reject them (challenge them, ignore them or belittle them).

For facts to make sense, they need to fit with the synapses already connected in our brains.

When There is No Frame

When there is no frame, you can’t communicate properly with a couple of catchy words.
The Republicans can do it with “tax-relief” because they worked for years on establishing the underlying frames.

The lack of an underlying frame is called “hypocognition”.

As Lakoff says:

Slogans can’t overcome hypocognition. Only sustained public discussion has a chance.

#5. Two Different Moral Systems

Lakoff says there are two different moral systems in politics:

The strict father who needs to impose discipline and order on the children -and on the world around:

See evil and good as separated

The strict father who has to make sure that “good” wins

Rich people obey the strict father rules and deserve to be rich

Poor people don’t obey the rules and deserve to be poor

Never depending on others

A nurturing parent syste:” 

Children are born good and can be made even better


Empathy for others

People are also responsible for others and for the community

Systems’ Overlap

Most people are not 100% in a system but operate different systems in different areas of their lives (“biconceptualism”).

The two systems can operate in the same person thanks to two mechanisms;

Inhibition (when one system is running the other is switched off)

Different neural bindings (the systems simply apply to different political issues)

It’s with these people that framing and wedge issues work best: because they are the ones that can more easily switch between liberal and conservative.

#6. People Don’t Vote With Self-Interest in Mind

George Lakoff draws a parallel between behavioral economics, with the work of authors such as Tversky and Kanehmann, and people’s voting pattern.

Same as people don’t always make the most rational economic decisions, they also don’t vote for the party that best represents their interest.
Lakoff says that people vote their identity.

#7. Orwellian Language Is Manipulative Language

Orwellian language is the framing of a negative policy with its opposite.

Promoting the name “climate change” instead of “global warming” is also an Orwellian frame, in Lakoff’s point of view.

Real-Life Applications

Don’t use the word you want to avoid people thinking

Don’t write “don’t hesitate to contact me”, because the word “hesitate” will make people hesitant.

Nixon said, “I am not a crook”, and everyone started thinking he might have been a crook.

Avoid negative fomrs

If you find yourself using too many negative forms, it might be the case that you haven’t developed a strong form of discourse that you can reference.

Stay away from set-ups

Brain Research Project. Language and Thinking. Framing. George Lakoff.

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