Over the past couple of weeks, The New York Times has been reporting on results from the cognitive and brain sciences that confirm past research in those fields partly by me and partly by my community of colleagues. What makes this of general, not personal, interest is that the scientific results are especially important for understanding what has been going wrong for the Obama administration and for liberals generally, and what has been going right for conservatives. I’m going to start out with some science, and get on to the politics after brief discussions of three important New York Times’ articles and what they mean scientifically.
It’s always satisfying for a scientist to see his or her predictions proved right experimentally (which happens often), and actually discussed in the press (which happens rarely). As a cognitive scientist and linguist, it’s been a good couple of weeks for me and my colleagues, especially in The New York Times. Experiments are hard to do, and I celebrate all the experimenters cited. Experiments are also hard to report on, and I praise the journalists at the Times for a fine job.
Metaphor and Embodiment
Back in 1980, Mark Johnson and I, in “Metaphors We Live By”, demonstrated the existence of metaphorical thought and argued that metaphor and other aspects of mind were embodied. That book, and our 1987 books, my “Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things” and Johnson’s “The Body in the Mind,” helped to start a cottage industry in the study of embodied cognition.
The experimental results confirming our theories of embodied cognition have been coming in regularly, especially in the area of metaphorical thought. Natalie Angier, on February 1, summarized some of the recent research very clearly:
- A University of Amsterdam study showed that subjects thinking about the future leaned forward, while those thinking about the past leaned backward. This was predicted by the 1980 analysis of common European metaphors in which the future is ahead and the past is behind. This is not just a matter of language, but of thought, as Johnson and I showed.
- At Yale, researchers found that subjects holding warm coffee in advance were more likely to evaluate an imaginary individual as warm and friendly than those holding cold coffee. This is predicted by the conceptual metaphor that affection is warmth, as in, She gave me a warm greeting.
- At the University of Toronto, subjects were asked to remember a time when they were either socially accepted or socially snubbed. Those with warm memories of acceptance judged the room to be five degrees warmer on the average than those who remembered being coldly snubbed.
- Subjects asked to think about a moral transgression like adultery or cheating on a test were more likely to request an antiseptic cloth after the experiment than those who had thought about good deeds. The well-known conceptual metaphor morality is purity predicts this behavior.
- Students told that that a particular book was important judged it to be physically heavier than a book that they were told was unimportant. The conceptual metaphor is important is heavy.
- In a parallel study with heavy versus light clipboards, those with the heavy clipboards were more likely like to judge currency to be more valuable and their opinions and their leaders more important.
- And in doing arithmetic, students who used their hands to group numbers together had an easier time doing problems that required conceptual grouping. This is predicted by the analysis of mathematics in “Where Mathematics Comes From” by myself and Rafael Núñez, where we show how mathematics from the simple to the advanced is based on embodied metaphorical cognition.
These results don’t happen by magic. How can these results be explained?
Johnson’s and my 1999 book, “Philosophy in the Flesh,” incorporated a neural theory of how embodied metaphorical thought works. What a child is regularly held affectionately by its parents, two distinct brain areas are activated simultaneously – one for temperature and one for affection. The synapses in both areas are strengthened and activation spreads along existing pathways until the shortest pathway between the areas is found and a circuit is formed. That circuit is the neural realization of what is called a “primary metaphor” that is embodied. Hundreds of such cases are formed unconsciously and automatically in childhood.
My Berkeley colleague, Srini Narayanan, has shown what computational properties such circuits must have. In still unpublished work, he has shown that the relative timing of first spikes across a synapse predicts the directionality of elementary metaphors in all known cases. The very idea that such low-level phenomena at the level of neurons can result in the vast range of metaphorical thought is truly remarkable.
A crucial part of the story of embodied cognition comes from the neuroscience of the 1990s, which showed that the same brain regions used in actually moving and perceiving are used in imagining and remembering moving and perceiving. These results led Jerome Feldman to the crucial idea that meaningful thought expressible in language is mental simulation that uses the neural structures of the sensory-motor system to imagine what is embodied, usually below the level of consciousness.
These are experimental findings and theories based on considerable evidence. Taken together, they explain the results of the experiments: Primary metaphorical thought arises when a neural circuit is formed linking two brain areas activated when experiences occur together repeatedly. Typically, one of the experiences is physical. In each experiment, each subject has the physical experience activating one of the brain regions and another experience (e.g., emotional or temporal) activating the other brain region for the given metaphor. The activation of both regions activates the metaphorical link. Thus, if the metaphor is future is ahead and past is behind, thinking about the future will activate the brain region for moving forward. If the metaphor is affection is warmth, holding warm coffee will activate the brain region for experiencing affection.
Angier did not seek out the theoretical studies that allow these explanations – and led to the performance of the experiments in the first place. That’s too much to ask of a New York Times article. But it was nice to see some of the relevant experiments reported on in The New York Times, even if the explanations were left out.
These cases don’t have any direct political implications in themselves, but they are indirectly important, as we shall see.
Words and Polls
The past week in The New York Times was also pretty good for me with respect to predictions.
There was a CBS/New York Times poll that showed support for ending “don’t ask, don’t tell” varied considerably depending on whether “homosexuals” or “gay men and lesbians” was used in the question. “Gay men and lesbians” got a lot more support – in the ball park of 15 percent more, which is a HUGE difference on a poll.
Those of you who’ve read my “Don’t Think of an Elephant!” and “The Political Mind” will be familiar with the basic results of frame semantics, developed by my Berkeley colleague Charles Fillmore and others within the cognitive and brain sciences.
The first basic result: The meaning of every word is characterized in terms of a brain circuit called a “frame.” Frames are often characterized in terms of the usual apparatus of mental life: metaphors, images, cultural narratives – and neural links to the emotion centers of the brain. The narrow, literal meaning of a word is only one aspect of its frame-semantic meaning.
The second basic result is that this is mostly unconscious, like 98 percent of human thought.
On the inherent link between semantic and emotion, see my discussion in “The Political Mind,” (chapter one) and the excellent books by Antonio Damasio (“Descartes’ Error”) and Drew Westen (“The Political Brain”).
“Homosexual” is simply defined via a different frame than “gay men and lesbians.” Professor Geoffrey Stone of the University of Chicago, writing in the Huffington Post on February 13, described the difference:
“Homosexual” conjures up dark visions of filthy bodily acts that arouse deeply-rooted feelings of disgust and ancient fears of Sodom and Gomorrah and hell and damnation. “Gay men and lesbians,” on the other hand, increasingly reminds us of people we know – sons and daughters, cousins and classmates, nieces and nephews, coworkers and neighbors.
In short, there is a big difference in meaning – the framing difference between the thought of gay sex and the idea of the civil rights of people in your community. The consequences are political, as Professor Stone observed:
When we hear religious leaders or politicians referring to “homosexuals in the military,” “homosexual marriage,” or “special rights for homosexuals,” we must recognize what they are doing. Especially for the 15 percent of Americans who react so viscerally to the term “homosexual,” they are trying to chew their way into the worst parts of our psyches in order to manipulate our beliefs and values and make us worse people than we really are.
I’ve been writing for years about how effective the right wing has been at framing, and how progressives often use right-wing language, even in polls. I have had numerous discussions with well-known pollsters who did not get the point and could not distinguish commonplace language from commonplace language that activated right-wing frames.
The cognitive science matters here. The CBS/New York Times poll results were to be expected given our current understanding of how words get their meaning by being neurally linked to frame-circuits.
Blinks, Worms and Spankers
- Nick Kristof, in his February 14 column, discussed three experiments distinguishing conservatives from liberals:
- In one experiment, the strength of blink reflexes to unexpected noises was measured and correlated with degrees of reactions to external threats. Conservatives reacted considerably more strongly than liberals.
- Another experiment was based on the fact that disgust reactions create glandular secretions that change skin conductance. Subjects were shown disgusting images (like some eating a handful of worms). Liberals reacted mildly, but conservative reactions went off the charts.
- A third study showed a strong correlation between attitudes toward spanking and voting patterns: spanking states tend to go Republican. The experimenters correlated spanking preferences with what they called “cognitive styles.” As Kristof reported it, “Spankers tend to see the world in stark, black-and-white terms, perceive the social order as vulnerable and under attack, tend to make strong distinctions between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ and emphasize order and muscular responses to threats. Parents favoring timeouts feel more comfortable with ambiguities, sense less threat, embrace minority groups – and are less prone to disgust when they see a man eating worms.”
- All three results follow from a cognitive science study called “Moral Politics,” which I published in 1996 and was reprinted in 2002. There, I observed that conservatives and liberals had opposite moral worldviews structured by metaphor around two profoundly different models of the ideal family: a strict father family for conservatives and a nurturant parent family for liberals. In the ideal strict father family, the world is seen as a dangerous place and the father functions as protector from “others” and the parent who teaches children absolute right from wrong by punishing them physically (painful spanking or worse) when they do wrong. The father is the ultimate authority; children are to obey, and immoral practices are seen as disgusting.
Ideal liberal families are based on nurturance, which breaks down into empathy, responsibility – for both oneself and others, and excellence: doing as well as one can to make oneself better and one’s family and community better. Parents are to practice these things and children are to learn them by example.
Because our first experience with being governed in is our families, we all learn a basic metaphor: A governing institution is a family, where the governing institution can be a church, a school, a team or a nation. The nation-as-family version gives us the idea of founding fathers, Mother India and Mother Russia, the Fatherland, homeland security etc.
Apply these monolithically to our politics and you get extreme conservative and progressive moral systems, defining what is right and wrong to each side.
There is no moral system of the moderate or the middle. Because of a neural phenomenon called “mutual inhibition,” two opposing moral systems can live in brain circuits that inhibit each other and are active in different contexts. For a nonpolitical example, consider Saturday night and Sunday morning moral systems, which coexist in the brains of many Americans. The same is true of “moderates,” who are conservative on some issues and progressive on others, though there may be variations from person to person.
Kristof doesn’t mention “Moral Politics,” though he got a copy at a Democratic Senate retreat in 2003, at which we both spoke. If “Moral Politics” is still on his bookshelf, I suggest he take a look. I also recommend it to anyone who wants to understand the difference between conservative and progressive moral systems.
Conservative Populism and Tea Partiers
After the Goldwater defeat of 1964, conservatism was a dirty word and most Americans wanted to be liberals, especially working people who were highly unionized. Lee Atwater and colleagues, working for the 1968 Nixon campaign, had a problem: How to get a significant number of working people to become conservative enough to vote for Nixon.
They intuited what I have since called “biconceptualism” (see “The Political Mind”) – the fact that many Americans have both conservative and progressive views, but in different contexts and on different issues. Mutual inhibition in brain circuitry means the strengthening of one weakens the other. They found a way to both strengthen conservative views and weaken liberal views, creating a conservative populism. Here’s how they did it.
They realized that by the late ’60s many working people were disturbed by the antiwar demonstrations; so Nixon ran on anti-communism. They noticed that many working men were upset by radical feminists; so they pushed traditional family values. And they realized that, after the civil rights legislation, many working men, especially in the South, were threatened by blacks. So, they ran Nixon on law and order. At the same time, they created the concept of “the liberal elite” – the tax-and-spend liberals, the liberal media, the Hollywood liberals, the limousine liberals and so on. They created language for all these ideas and have been repeating it ever since.
Even though liberals have worked tirelessly for the material benefit of working people, the repetition of conservative populist frames over more than 40 years has had an effect. Conservative ideas have spread in the brains of conservative populists. The current Tea Party movement is an attempt to spread conservative populism further.
Sarah Palin may not know history or economics, but she does know strict father morality and conservative populist frames. Frank Rich, in his February 14 New York Times column, denied David Broder’s description of Palin as “perfect pitch populism” and called it “deceptive faux populism” and a “populist masquerade.” What Rich is missing is that Palin has a perfect pitch for conservative populism – which is very different from liberal populism. What she can do is strengthen the conservative side of biconceptual undecided populists, helping to move them to conservative populists. She is dangerous that way.
Rich, long one of my heroes, is a perfect-pitch liberal. He assumes that nurturant values (empathy, social and personal responsibility, making yourself and the world better) are the only objective values. I think they are right values, values that define democracy, but unfortunately far from the only values. Starting with those values, Rich correctly pointed out that Palin’s views contradict liberal populism and that her conservative positions won’t materially help the poor and middle class. All true, but … that does not contradict conservative populism or conservatism in general.
This is a grand liberal mistake. The highest value in the conservative moral system (see “Moral Politics,” chapter nine) is the perpetuation and strengthening of the conservative moral system itself!! This is not liberal materialism. Liberals decry it as “ideology,” and it is. But it is real; it has the structure of moral system, and it is physically part of the brains of both Washington conservatives and conservative populists. The conservative surge is not merely electoral. It is an idea surge. It is an attempt to spread conservatism via the spread of conservative populism. That is what the Tea Party movement is doing.
False Reason and Real Reason: The Obama Mistake
It was entirely predictable a year ago that the conservatives would hold firm against Obama’s attempts at “bipartisanship” – finding occasional conservatives who were biconceptual, that is, shared some views acceptable to Obama on some issues, while keeping an overall liberal agenda.
The conservatives are not fools. Because their highest value is protecting and extending the conservative moral system itself, giving Obama any victory at all would strengthen Obama and weaken the hold of their moral system. Of course, they were going to vote against every proposal and delay and filibuster as often as possible. Protecting and extending their worldview demands it.
Obama has not understood this.
We saw this when Obama attended the Republican caucus. He kept pointing out that they voted against proposals that Republicans had made and that he had incorporated, acting as if this were a contradiction. But that was to be expected, since a particular proposal that strengthens Obama and hence weakens their moral view violates their highest moral principle.
Such conservative logic explains why conservatives in Congress first proposed a bipartisan committee to study the deficit, and then voted against it.
That is why I don’t expect much from the president’s summit with Republicans on February 25. Why should they do anything to strengthen Obama’s hand, when it would violate their highest moral principle, as well as weakening themselves electorally? If Obama thinks he can shame them in front of their voters, he is mistaken, again. Conservative voters think the same way they do.
During the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama used framing perfectly and articulated the progressive moral system (empathy, individual and social responsibility, making oneself and the world better) as well as it has ever been done.
But he changed after the election. Obama moved from real reason, how people really think, to false reason, a traditional view coming out of the enlightenment and favored by all too many liberals.
We now (finally!) come to the point of going through all those experiments in the cognitive and brain sciences. Here are the basic differences between real and false reason, and the ways in which all too many liberals, including Obama during the past year, are wed to false reason.
Real reason is embodied in two ways. It is physical, in our brain circuitry. And it is based on our bodies as the function in the everyday world, using thought that arises from embodied metaphors. And it is mostly unconscious. False reason sees reason as fully conscious, as literal, disembodied, yet, somehow fitting the world directly, and working not via frame-based, metaphorical, narrative and emotional logic, but via the logic of logicians alone.
Empathy is physical, arising from mirror neurons systems tied to emotional circuitry. Self-interest is real as well, and both play their roles in real reason. False reason is supposed to serve material self-interest alone. It’s supposed to answer the question, “What’s in it for me?,” which President Obama assumed that all populists were asking. While Frank Luntz told conservatives to frame health care in terms of the moral concepts of freedom (a “government takeover”) and life (“death panels”), Obama was talking about policy minutia that could not be understood by most people.
Real reason is inexplicably tied up with emotion; you cannot be rational without being emotional. False reason thinks that emotion is the enemy of reason, that it is unscrupulous to call on emotion. Yet, people with brain damage who cannot feel emotion cannot make rational decisions because they do not know what to want, since like and not like mean nothing. “Rational” decisions are based on a long history of emotional responses by oneself and others. Real reason requires emotion.
Obama assumed that Republicans would act “rationally,” where “rationality” was defined by false reason – on the logic of material self-interest. But conservatives understood that their electoral chances matched their highest moral principle, strengthening their moral system itself without compromise.
It is a basic principle of false reason that every human being has the same reason governed by logic – and that if you just tell people the truth, they will reason to the right conclusion. The President kept saying, throughout Tea Party summer, that he would just keep telling the truth about policy details that most people could not make moral sense of. And so he did, to the detriment of all of us.
All politics is moral. Political leaders all make proposals they say are “right.” No one proposes a policy that they say is wrong. But there are two opposing moral systems at work in America. What moral system you are using governs how you will see the world and reason about politics. That is the lesson of the cognitive science behind “Moral Politics” and all the experiments since then. It is the lesson of all the research on embodied metaphor. Metaphorical thought is central to politics.
Finally, there is the lesson of how language works in the brain. Every word is neurally connected to a neural circuit characterizing a frame, which, in turn, is part of a system of frames linked to a moral system. In political discourse, words activate frames, which, in turn, activate moral systems. This mechanism is not conscious. It is automatic, and it is acquired through repetition. As the language of conservative morality is repeated, frames are activated repeatedly that, in turn, activate and strengthen the conservative system of thought – unconsciously and automatically. Thus, conservative talk radio and the national conservative messaging system are powerful unconscious forces. They work via principles of real reason.
But many liberals, assuming a false view of reason, think that such a messaging system for ideas they believe in would be illegitimate – doing the things that the conservatives do that they consider underhanded. Appealing honestly to the way people really think is seen as emotional and, hence, irrational and immoral. Liberals, clinging to false reason, simply resist paying attention to real reason.
Take Paul Krugman, one of my heroes, whose economic sense I find impeccable. Here is a quote from a recent column:
Republicans who hate Medicare, tried to slash Medicare in the past, and still aim to dismantle the program over time, have been scoring political points by denouncing proposals for modest cost savings – savings that are substantially smaller than the spending cuts buried in their own proposals.
He is following traditional liberal logic, and pointing out a literal contradiction: they denounce “cuts in Medicare,” while wanting to eliminate Medicare and have proposed bigger cuts themselves.
But, from the perspective of real reason as conservatives use it, there is no contradiction. The highest conservative value is preserving and empowering their moral system itself. Medicare is anathema to their moral system – a fundamental insult. It violates free market principles and gives people things they haven’t all earned. It is a system where some people are paying – God forbid! – for the medical care of others. For them, Medicare itself is immoral on a grand scale, a fundamental moral issue far more important than any minor proposal for “modest cost savings.” I’m sorry to report it, but that is how conservatives are making use of real reason, and exploiting the fact that so many liberals think it’s contradictory.
Indeed, one of the major findings of real reason is that negating a frame activates that frame in the brain and reinforces it – like Nixon saying that he was not a crook. Dan Pfeiffer, writing on the White House blog, posted an article called “Still not a ‘Government Takeover’,” which activates the conservative idea of a government takeover and hence reinforces the idea. Every time a liberal goes over a conservative proposal giving evidence negating conservative ideas one by one, he or she is activating the conservative ideas in the brains of his audience. The proper response is to start with your own ideas, framed to fit what you really believe. Facts matter. But they have to be framed properly and their moral significance must be made manifest. That is what we learn from real reason.
The New York Times is home to a lot of traditional reason, often based on false principles of how people think. That is why the reporting of those experiments brightened my day. Perhaps the best way to The New York Times’ mind is through the science of mind.
Kudos once more to the Times’ science reporting on those experiments.