Author George Lakoff recently spoke to Mark Green on the Air America program 7 Days in America about cognitive science, Republican marketing, the voter’s brain, and Barack Obama’s contagious cool.
The following is an excerpt from the transcript, originally posted on the Huffington Post:
GREEN: Explain to our listeners your analysis of how the brain’s functions affects the way people vote.
LAKOFF: Well, it’s straight out of neuroscience and cognitive science…. We all grew up with a view of reason that goes like this: that reason is conscious, that it is dispassionate (that emotion gets in the way of it), that it is literal (it can fit the world exactly as it is), that it is logical, that it is universal (we all have the same reason), that it is abstract, and that it is based on self-interest…. [But] it turns out every single part of that is empirically false, and disproved in neuroscience and cognitive science. First of all, 98 percent of our reason is unconscious; it’s what our brain is doing when we’re busy being conscious. Second, it turns out that you can’t be rational without being emotional; emotional is necessary for rationality.
GREEN: How do Republicans use this insight to their political advantage?
LAKOFF: They come out of marketing, and since the early 70s they’ve been marketing their product very well — and they’ve built the institutions to do so. They’ve spent over four billion dollars so far on think tanks, they have training institutes, they have bought media, and they come out every day with language that they’ve developed for their ideas, which they’ve repeated over and over. And the more you repeat the language for a frame or a metaphor, every time that happens, that frame or metaphor is activated in the brain, the synapses of the brain get stronger, and that becomes part of your brain.
GREEN: Can your analysis explain how Obama beat Clinton in the primaries?
LAKOFF: Well, first of all, Ronald Reagan learned from all of this that people vote not on the basis of positions on issues and on programs but on five things. Namely, values, communication and connection, trust, authenticity (do you tell the truth), and identity (do you identify with the candidate). Obama understood that, and ran his campaign that way. Clinton ran on the basis of positions on issues, and bored people, basically. She didn’t run on those five things. Now, Obama had the positions on issues and all the experts, but that’s not how he ran his operation against Clinton.
GREEN: OK, but now in the general election, is Obama’s lead based on his positions on the issues — the 2% of conscious decision-making according to you — or on the other 98% based on images, stories, style and “authenticity”?
LAKOFF: Both. First, there’s a very important fact, which is we have what are called “mirror neurons,” that is, when the same neurons are firing when we perform an action as when we see someone else perform them, and that means that we react to people’s bodies. When we see Obama, our bodies are loose because his body is loose: we feel comfortable in our skins. McCain is never comfortable in his skin: you feel tense when you see McCain. So body language is one important part of this. In addition, the most important concepts in the campaign that Obama is running is not “change,” because “change” doesn’t tell you anything. The most important concepts are the unconscious ones that he occasionally consciously talks about: empathy (caring about other people, having a government that cares about other people), responsibility (not just for yourself, but also social responsibility and community responsibility), and aspiration (for yourself, for your children, for your community and your country).
GREEN: Can the Republican ticket overcome his natural skills here by relentless personal attacks that appeal to the 98% of our brains that are not conscious?
LAKOFF: Well, this goes back to the late 60’s. One of the things that Lee Atwater and his friends figured out in the Nixon campaign was to create the idea of the liberal elite: the tax-and-spend liberals, the Hollywood liberals, the limousine liberals who looked down on working people, the liberal media who made fun of working people. And they repeated that over and over for 40 years through their institutions that repeat this day after day. As a result, they created a bunch of folks through brain change: namely, the conservative populists. And that’s who they were appealing to; they were trying to get the conservative populists in Ohio, Pennsylvania, many of the Democratic states to vote Republican, because these were among the Reagan Democrats
GREEN: Might Obama’s intellectual style — the way he’s so linear, logcial, legal — be a liability by only appealing to 2%?
LAKOFF: If you read his books, he is great at the other 98%. He’s a grand storyteller, the stories are about metaphor. He’s a master at those things, and he’s thinking about the economy and foreign policy in a very imaginative way.
GREEN: Beyond ideology then, is Obama the Democratic Reagan?
LAKOFF: He may very well be, because he can bring people together, he can communicate amazingly, he has a charisma beyond anything that we’ve seen since Bobby Kennedy, and because he’s really deep. He’s not just smart, not just intellectual, not just rational — this is a person who is really deep.
Listen to the interview here.