Friday thread: If you can use language to activate your world view in somebody else, you have power.

George Lakoff, Professor of Cognitive Science at the University of California Berkeley talks to Tavis Smiley of PBS about what cognitive science might tell us about how Donald Trump is leading the media down endless rabbit holes, and what they might do about it.

Raising the subject of President Donald Trump may seem to be against the spirit of our occasional Friday Threads, which is generally a holiday from the tribalism of politics. But the Trump phenomenon goes deeper than politics.  This from Maureen Dowd recently:

Because Trump holds Thor’s hammer, with its notably short handle, we must keep trying to figure out his strange, perverse, aggrieved style of reasoning. So we’re stuck in Trump’s head with him.

It’s a very cluttered place to be, a fine-tuned machine spewing a torrent of chaos, cruelty, confusion, farce and transfixing craziness. Of course, this is merely the observation of someone who is “the enemy of the American people”, according to our president.

It’s not the only piece in this line this week. There are other liberals getting exhausted with the sheer energy required to keep up with this most manic of all manic Presidents. When Farad Manjoo tried to ignore Trump-related news stories for a week, he found:

…the overall effect was something like trying to bite into a fruit-and-nut cake without getting any fruit or nuts.

President Trump is a very Internet President (several conservative iterations on from the once uber-digital liberal candidate Howard Dean) who has bypassed much of the insider certainty of institutions currently suffering a global dive in public trust.

To the hysterically loud, but voiceless liberal elite (who cannot now seem to think of anything else) he also presents a very Internet problem. It’s been the turn of the Trump and the pro-Brexit campaign to disrupt expectations and taking public engagement a few steps further.

This is from the beginning of Lakoff’s interview with Smiley, where he cuts to the chase of the core of how politics works (from forever), and not just in  regard to Trump (go no further than the problems facing the moderates in NI for instance):

He knows not just how to speak but how to change your brain very effectively. He’s a super salesman.

Ideas don’t just float in the air, they are in your neural circuitry. And if you have a world view then that’s a lot of neural circuits. And those neural circuits for a world view are fixed.

Once they are fixed they become what you would call a neural filter. You can only understand what your brain allows you to understand. So if you only have one worldview, you’re stuck to understanding only things that fit that world view.

If information comes in that doesn’t fit it, it will either be not noticed, ignored, ridiculed or attacked.

This is not something that you consciously will. Remember that about 98% of thought is unconscious and beyond conscious control. Many people, perhaps most, hold more than one worldview at once.

What is a moderate? A moderate is someone who has mostly one. If you’re a moderate conservative you have some progressive views on various different things. If you are a moderate progressive, you have some conservative views on on different things.

And that means you have two different worldviews, but about different things. Neurally that means those two world views contradict each other, and the activation of one weakens the other. So if you can use language to activate your world view in somebody else, you have power.

Here’s a section from Drew Weston’s introduction to his celebrated 2008 book, The Political Brain:

…the political brain did something we didn’t predict. Once partisans had found a way to reason false conclusions, not only did the neural circuits involved in negative emotions turn off, but positive circuits involved in positive emotions turned on.

The partisan brain didn’t seem satisfied in just feeling better.

It worked overtime to feel good, activating reward circuits that give partisans a jolt of positive reinforcement for their biased reasoning. These reward circuits overlap substantially with those activated when drug addicts get their fix, giving new meaning to the term,

These reward circuits overlap substantially with those activated when drug addicts get their fix, giving new meaning to the term, political junkie.

At the best of times, the pain and exhilaration experienced by some commenting on Slugger arise from a confrontation of clashing world views.

Lakoff provides a clue for how that works:

With a lot of people, the lying doesn’t matter. Think of it this way. All politics is about morality. It’s about right and wrong. If a politician says, “do what I say”, it’s because it’s right, not do it because it’s evil and that doesn’t matter.

So that means your notion of what’s right for you is what’s important here. Your very identity is defined by what’s right for you and you think of yourself as doing right all the time. That’s the deepest part of your identity. It is the highest truth, for you.

Now, if you have what I call strict father morality, which is what Trump has, and what the Republicans mainly have, what that says is that that view of the world, which is a view having to do with domination, that view of the world defines who you are.

So if something comes in and you happen to know it’s a lie it doesn’t matter because the truth that defines your identity is more important.

In Trump’s case, the selling lies somewhere is about flipping the narrative:

First, repetition, over and over and over. Language means something, it activates something called a frame in your brain, which is part of a world view.

A good example [was] when George Bush Senior came into office, the first day he talked about tax relief, which is an affliction and the good guys get rid of that affliction and the bad guys want to keep it there. And then every day after that he repeated it and repeated it.

Until the New York Times used tax relief on the front page and the Democrats took tax relief for the middle class and so on and taking the conservative view of taxation. And this happens a lot.

So what to do about distractions in politics:

Criticising Donald Trump is likely saying “don’t think of an elephant” (I wrote a book called Don’t think of an Elephant) where Nixon said “I am not a crook”. You negate something and it makes people think of it. It strengthens the people you are arguing against.

What you need to do is argue for. Always frame things from your point of view when you start. So suppose you are in the press and you have to cover Trump. You’re in the media. What do you do?

First of all, is he going to try divert attention from someone? Start with the real issues confronting the country and confronting him first and tell the truth about those. Then, when you see a diversion like is talking about Meryl Streep or something else, tell the truth about that diversion first.

Then say, “oh by the way, he has tweeted the following which doesn’t fit the facts in this way. You say that in 30 seconds, and then you go back to the real issues. This is a diversion away from these real issues and you go back to telling the truth.

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  • Nevin

    “If you can use language to activate your world view in somebody else, you have power.”

    Reminiscent of John Hume and Humespeak:

    “I say it and I go on saying it until I hear the man in the pub saying my words back to me” .. source

  • Erewhon888

    The various blog posts by Scott Adams (of Dilbert fame) on “The Persuasion Filter” and Trump would supplement this reading material.

  • Kevin Breslin
  • Msiegnaro

    North of Ireland.

  • mickfealty

    Very good!!

  • the Moor

    Or as foucauldians are inclined to say, they are interested in: “that aspect of discourse which has the capacity to produce what it names”.

  • Nevin

    “The other thing is serious training of the NGOs — the foundations and other groups that are there for the public good — in how to talk about these things, how to frame their message and not make mistakes and not help the other side, and to do it always from the point of view of what’s positive. Not attacking Trump implicitly, but by saying what’s good for the public and why it’s good and then, by the way, this goes against everything that Trump is doing. But the main thing is to frame it in terms of public good.” .. George Lakoff

    Whose propaganda are we most likely to believe? Quite possibly the one adjacent to the one we imbibed with our mothers’ milk. ‘Public good’ sets off my sceptic antenna!

  • mickfealty

    As it probably should. He’s coming at this from the left, of course. But I think the moral aspect is important here, and it seems to me too many on the left have surrendered their political values to the workings of the rights machine which (they hope/believe) can churn out public goods by following ‘due process’.

    Thus the shock many felt when the usual representative process was bypassed via the Brexit referendum. The machine misdelivered. What Trump (and dare I say it Gerry with his subversion of the legalistic – as opposed to moral – Equality agenda) knows is that any such due process can be bent to your own will, if only you are strong and uncompromising enough.

  • noodles

    Influencing is what we do each day to others and they the same unto us. The essential attribute of leadership is getting followers who embrace your goals as their own. For me it’s not so much what Trump is doing or even how he is doing it that is unique -it’s what enables him to do it on a continental scale. If he were running a funeral home (it’s an image that the world has planted in my view, think John Belushi) he’d be the same whiny in-it-for-me persona that we know and love, except the sneering would happen surreptitiously behind an unctuous public persona. He is not the devil, nor sauron, no chameleon seducer and destroyer of worlds is he. He is Donald, insecure/arrogant and mucho bullish. He has the ‘authentic’ leadership of someone who has always had the baton in his hand, has always been the one calling the shots. He’s been sniffing around politics for decades looking for bites. Why now? What’s caused the antennae of many millions to tune into his message?

  • Ciaran O’Neill

    Very interesting noodles. I’ve spent a lot of time since November looking into and reading up on the people he has surrounded himself with, especially Steve Bannon. The last points you make about Trump always having been sniffing around politics, I couldn’t agree more. Maybe this time was different because others, especially Bannon, saw a vessel that they could perhaps use for their own ends, someone with the all the characteristics required to take their particular world view to market if you like. Bannon had hitched his wagon to Sarah Palin at the time of the Tea Party explosion a few years back and made a documentary, “Undefeated”, about her also. Watching to and listening to his speeches from around that time, I get the impression that Bannon perhaps thought that Palin would be a major player one day and tried to channel his world view through her. As Palin faded into the background somewhat, he needed someone else, someone bigger, someone with a higher profile and then Trump presented himself as a Presidential candidate.

    Here’s an interesting speech from Bannon back in 2011, Tea Party time. His world view more or less laid out:

    Here’s another speech he gave at a Vatican conference a few years later in 2014, the content of which is very, very interesting. This is before Trump announced, or anyone even contemplated, he was running for President:

    Now, have a listen to Bannon’s contribution at the CPAC Conference this week (from 7:35 to 9:00 and then 11:40 to 13:45). It’s clear that Bannon is the brains behind the administration and Trump appears to be his conduit. Bannon would help explain the why now part. He needed a new vessel to help carry the message that Palin couldn’t and Trump was desperate to finally enter the political fold. Theirs is a perfect marriage in many respects, both coming into each others lives at the perfect time. And it’s clear from Bannon’s contribution at CPAC that it is he who is laying out and executing this administration’s strategy:

  • noodles

    Thank you, Ciaran, for the nice words.
    I listened to the last two, my first time to hear Bannon speak I think – which is something in itself. His speeches are interesting as you say for how they anticipate and thus reveal his influence on POTUS Trump’s policies. The content not so much, it seems generic though well delivered with idiosyncratic styling that conveys personal conviction. I can easily see how Bannon’s grand historical sweep gave Trump the words and the ideas to be a credible candidate, while Bannon’s apocalyptic analysis gives a noble basis for his own sense of persecution… lovingly nurtured I suspect over decades of systemic ridicule at the hands of New York’s cosmopolitan elite. Just as well, otherwise his press conferences would be limited to him talking about himself and his achievements, his family and their achievements and whatever grievance du jour put that gumless scowl on his face. In fact, just like that last press conference. Bannon’s it seems misses the good old days when whites/Europeans/European-North Americans had a nigh exclusive hold on world power. 20th century white racism was based on privilege accumulated over the 5 is it 6 centuries of European colonisation: we are more developed than you, thus smarter than you, and thus we must burden ourselves to rule you. Along with the privilege came responsibilities to improve the lot of the poor souls unfortunate not be born white. When military colonialism ceased to be practical, the attitudes and responsibilities continued as enlightened self-interest. Bannon’s zeit-geisty relevance is recognising that white discrimination by race/ethnicity is no longer based on privilege, it is now based on fear, just like a Sunni Moslem’s vis-a-via a Shia, No more teaching the natives how to fish so that they will have something to trade us with…it’s back to the future mercantilism 101. Inevitably fear gives rise to conspiracy theories endemic to the middle east finding new forms and energy in the West. New World Order, George Soros, Davos, Bilderbergs…they are coming for our way of life. But for all that opportunists need an opening…

  • mickfealty

    Just putting this here as an example of how innovation in politics can carry the seeds of its own self destruction:

  • Cosmo

    spot on….he is sometimes even called president Bannon 2020, on Breitbart forum too.

    Also, you might find this worth a read on his views…

    Do you think he might also be a part of the opposition against the liberalism, which is detested by Fundamentalists, of the current Pope ?

  • mickfealty

    It was more fun when Benedict ( was pursuing Francis Bacon with his unenlightenment.

    This New Yorker piece is worth pitching in here:

    Stripped of a lot of what might be called cognitive-science-ese, Mercier and Sperber’s argument runs, more or less, as follows: Humans’ biggest advantage over other species is our ability to coöperate. Coöperation is difficult to establish and almost as difficult to sustain. For any individual, freeloading is always the best course of action. Reason developed not to enable us to solve abstract, logical problems or even to help us draw conclusions from unfamiliar data; rather, it developed to resolve the problems posed by living in collaborative groups.

  • Cosmo
  • mickfealty

    The Moor,

    That’s a hot contender for the key aphorism to help address the crisis in 21C governance. It also fits with Ed Straw’s call for alignment between public narrative, needs and resources

    (I’d speculate that a decently aligned UK Labour council may saved the party from humiliation in Stoke-on-Trent last Thursday from the march of UKIP populism).

    The piece has also sparked a few interesting conversations elsewhere. In terms of the neuro-linguistics here’s another contender from Bruce Kunkel: “acknowledge the frame then reframe“.

    It also fits with the call for mannerly, empathetic and respectful approach we ask from the participants which allows us to trigger the sort cross tribal discourses needed in order to improve the work.

    One of the few quietly successful memes I’ve ever set up through Google was “Play the Ball and Not the Man“.

    It’s simple and memorable enough to be popular: and enforceable without forcing the ref to become partisan in his/her decisions. And hopefully frees people to address production that than swapping of empty rhetoric.

  • Cosmo

    Thank you for the link to New Yorker article, with lots of interesting experiments, group think, nuancing etc. Perhaps, psycho-analysis could have something to contribute…?
    I can empathise with Bannon’s disgust around the Financial crash, but my antennae goes up when I hear his term Church Militant, especially as he uses this in conjunction with the Clash of Civilisations.

    On a ‘lighter’ note, running in parallel with Trump’s inauguration in January, was the spat (or is it more than that??) around the Knights of Malta – and, for me, photos of Matthew Festing and Cardinal Burke, as with Trump, seem to show men with no sense of irony of their own (unaccountable) vanity, and even fundamentalist cruelty. Suitable material for Bannon to mould, perhaps!

  • the Moor

    Or in older, vernacular terms, in this age of cyber-bullying, stalking, and trolling, ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but words have the discurive power to cause serious injurious to my mental well-being’ (aka self or subjecthood)