Belief and Worldview in Politics

I often begin public talks by asserting that what we believe to be true is more important than what is actually true.  Then I share examples like these:

  • Saddam Hussein is linked to the 9/11 attacks.
  • Environmental action destroys jobs.
  • Regulations hurt markets.
  • Government is wasteful.

Each of these claims is based on an underlying belief about the world.  In the case of Saddam Hussein, most Fox News viewers consider the linkage to 9/11 as incontrovertible regardless of the evidence presented to the contrary.  Similarly, economists from the most prestigious universities have ardently declared that markets should be “free” from intrusion by government in order to create wealth and prosperity.  This implies that regulations are harmful and restrictive to the workings of markets.  It further inculcates the implicit belief that markets are inherently good and will always behave in the interest of public welfare, even in the face of a mountain of hard facts that contradict this view.

Why do I begin presentations with this strange assertion?  Because it tells us something very important about how our minds work.

Many of us were taught that there is a single objective reality.  We take as given the notion that our thoughts correspond with the external world in a straightforward manner, what mathematicians call a one-to-one correspondence.  This is sometimes called the Literal Correspondence Theory because it asserts that all of our thoughts are literal and that they are true only if they accurately map onto the world.

Research conducted back in the 1970’s abolished the Literal Correspondence Theory, as documented in the groundbreaking book Metaphors We Live By (1980) by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson.  They turned 2500 years of philosophy on its head by demonstrating the widespread and pervasive role of metaphors in everyday conceptual thought.  (For another read on this fascinating topic, check out Raymond Gibbs’ The Poetics of Mind: Figurative Thought, Language and Understanding published in 1994)

Here are two examples:

More is Up

It is quite common to conceptualize quantity as a vertical level, with sayings like “housing prices dropped” and”watch the stock market rise.”  This metaphor provides a logic to the concept for magnitude that is intuitive and easy to grasp.  It arises through the experience of stacking things such that a greater magnitude results in a higher level of the stack – be it a stack of books or the level of a liquid in a glass.

Knowing is Seeing

We often conceptualize the acquisition of knowledge as a visioning act, with sayings like “I see what you mean” and “that idea is a little unclear.”  This metaphor arises through the experience of coming to know things when they appear in our line of sight.

More than 200 conceptual metaphors like these have been documented so far.  (A sample can be found here.)  The existence of conceptual metaphors tells us that our understandings are not tied directly to the world in a one-to-one fashion.  We can reason with more than one metaphor about the same topic.  So it is possible that we may think of a market as a tool  – the Markets as Tools metaphor – when discussing how to “create a market” that reduces air pollution.  At the same time, another person may think about a market as a self-directed person – the Market as Autonomous Agent metaphor – when suggesting that we should “let the market decide” how best to increase human well-being.

What’s a Worldview?  Look for a System of Metaphors

The tendency to reason with a particular set of conceptual metaphors is indicative of a particular mental model for how the world works, sometimes referred to as a worldview.  George Lakoff, in his effort to discover how political thought works, revealed that a specific metaphor is commonplace in political discourse.  The Nation as Family metaphor – with examples like “founding fathers” and “send our sons and daughters off to war” – plays an essential role in organizing progressive and conservative political thought around coherent moral worldviews.

This metaphor arises with one of two idealized models for the family.  For conservative thought it is the Strict Father Family with its authoritarian structure and an emphasis on discipline and order.  Progressive thought arises through the Nurturant Parent Family with its egalitarian structure and an emphasis on empathy and shared responsibility.  Each of these models brings with it a moral lens for understanding right and wrong, good and bad.  (Get the full-blown coverage of this discovery in Lakoff’s book Moral Politics published in 1996 and 2002)

Each conceptual model represents a set of beliefs and understandings that is often contradictory with the other.  Conservatives tend to believe markets can fix any problem.  Progressives generally believe markets are capable of doing harm as well as good.  While conservatives believe that nature is separate from and competes with the economy, progressives believe a fundamental interdependence exists.  A long list of discrepancies like these are discussed in Moral Politics and its smaller companion Don’t Think of an Elephant!.

Our beliefs arise through coherent worldviews that differ from one another.

Beyond “Only the Facts” Strategies

A common mistake in political strategy is the notion that people are motivated by the facts of a situation.  Any social scientist worth their salt will tell you that what a person knows in any particular context is grounded in a mesh of beliefs, value-judgments, and information that supports a particular viewpoint.  It’s not simply a matter of getting the facts straight.

People are actually motivated by core beliefs about the world, deeply felt concerns they have, aspirations that call upon them to grow and thrive, and the connection of personal identity with people who share their values.  Political strategists ignore these motivations at their peril, as has occurred over and over again in failed campaigns to elect candidates (John Kerry come to mind?), pass key legislation (Will we ever get universal health care?), and cultural change agendas (How do we nip rampant consumerism in the bud?).

Unfortunately, advocates of progressive social change are all-too-often not aware of conceptual metaphor and worldview as influences on social behavior.  Perhaps this isn’t surprising.  Few among us keep up with the latest research in human semantics.  Yet, discoveries like these will be vital for practitioners in the advocacy world to understand and incorporate into their practices if they are to engage their audiences at the deepest levels – where behaviors emerge from.  It will be vital that we recognize the role of beliefs and worldviews in political thought in order to engage the populace in meaningful ways.

At Cognitive Policy Works, we’re dedicated to converting discoveries like these into learnable practices so that it becomes possible to communicate effectively in our rapidly changing world.


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Cognitive Policy Works specializes in providing organizations and individuals with frame analysis, policy briefs, strategic advising, and training.