Chapter 3 – Part 2: Insights from Cognitive Sciences

This article is part of the Thinking Points Discussion Series published by the Rockridge Institute in early 2007. It was written by Joe Brewer (Rockridge Institute staff member) on Thursday, March 29, 2007 01:44 PM

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Continuing our discussion of chapter 3 in Thinking Points, we explore the insights provided by the cognitive sciences to discover that many common assumptions about the human mind are flawed. In this section, the second of three installments on chapter 3, we can see that our “common sense” understanding of rational thought leads to erroneous predictions about political behavior.

Chapter 3 of Thinking Points looks at framing, the implications of cognitive science for political behavior, and key words used in political discourse that have been redefined so that they no longer reflect traditional American values. This article explores the middle sections of the chapter to give insight into the workings of the human mind so that we can better understand our political nature.

Lessons From Cognitive Science

In recent decades there have been tremendous strides in the cognitive sciences (neuroscience, cognitive linguistics, cognitive psychology, artificial intelligence, etc.) to help us better understand our own minds. Many of the discoveries have challenged the basic tenets of Western philosophy in a manner that calls for re-evaluation of our most basic assumptions about the mind. Chapter 3 of Thinking Points presents the following eight lessons we can learn from these empirical studies.

  1. The use of frames is largely unconscious. In fact, most of our thoughts -perhaps as much as 98% – are structured in significant ways before they become conscious. The use of frames occurs at the neural level and is not accessible for conscious consideration when they are activated. Thus the right-wing message machine can impose its frames upon an unknowing public – regardless of the political views held by individuals. This is why right-wing language is often used by progressive journalists and politicians without even knowing it!
  2. Frames define common sense. What is considered to be common sense varies from person to person but always depends on the frames you use. Right-wing think tanks and media conglomerates have embedded their frames in the brains of the public, causing our concepts to shift toward the strict father worldview and changing our understanding of “common sense.”
  3. Repetition can embed frames in the brain. The technique of using repetition of the same words or to express the same idea is effective. As we saw in the discussion of Part 1 about frames, words are structured by surface frames that are connected to deep frames that shape our worldview. Each time these frames are activated in our brains, their neural connections are strengthened and become more pronounced in shaping our thoughts.
  4. Activation links surface frames to deep frames and inhibits opposition frames. Deep frames provide the foundation for our worldviews. Meaning is not stable when incompatible worldviews emerge together. Our brains do not allow this to happen. When one scenario is activated in the brain, all others that are incompatible with it are suppressed. If this did not happen, our thoughts would easily jumble together and nothing would ever make sense.
  5. Existing deep frames don’t change overnight. Frames are hardwired into our brains. In order to change them we need to weaken existing neural connections and strengthen (or create) alternative connections. This is a labor intensive process that takes time and this is a good thing. If the parts of our brains that provide stable meaning could be altered easily and quickly, we would not be able to make sense of long-term memories or build sophisticated bodies of knowledge over time. Related to politics, this means we need to be persistent when using new frames. Repetition is essential!
  6. Speak to biconceptuals as you speak to your base. Every one of us has the mental structures in our brains that are necessary to understand strict father and nurturant parent moralities. We call this phenomenon biconceptualism – or as Rockridge staff member Sherry Reson likes to call it, conceptual pluralism. Both moral systems are incompatible and, therefore, the activation of one will inhibit the other. This is why it is so important to speak to swing voters using the values that authentically represent your moral base. If you express values incompatible with your moral base, you will suppress the moral worldview you endorse in the minds of swing voters while simultaneously activating the opposing moral worldview.
  7. The facts alone will not set you free. Have you ever considered what it means for something to be a fact? A fact – in our everyday use of the word – is a piece of knowledge that is true regardless of opinion or interpretation. Sounds simple enough, but here is the wrench in the gears: any piece of knowledge that is true requires a context to make sense! If I tell you that the Earth is flat, it is a fact based on the context we see standing on its surface. The fact that the Earth is a sphere only makes sense when we consider its shape from a context that is looking down on the surface from above. Facts require a context! And frames provide that context.
  8. Simply negating the other side’s frames only reinforces them. We use frames even when we negate them. A simple meditation exercise I learned once involved sitting for 15 minutes and trying not to think of a white horse. Of course, every time I tried NOT to think of a white horse the image of a white horse popped into my head (“Okay, I’ll think about a green tree because it’s not a horse and it certainly isn’t white. Dang it!”) This phenomenon works in politics as well. When Richard Nixon declared, “I am not a crook.” Everyone created an image in their minds of Nixon as a crook.

By incorporating these lessons into our understanding of politics, we can see that we need to reconsider our strategies if we want to win. We cannot simply “tell it like it is” without considering how the “it is” gets structured using frames. We need to clearly understand and articulate our progressive values using appropriate frames to be authentic and to activate our moral base in listeners. This process takes time so we need to start today and persist for the long haul.

The Problem of Rationalism

If I were to guess how you will respond to criticisms of rationality, I would probably place you in one of three camps:

  1. You are inclined to listen with suspicion because you resonate strongly with the value of behaving rationally;
  2. You are inclined to welcome the message warmly because you have long felt that rationality is missing something important;
  3. Or you are inclined to wonder what rationality is and why you should care about it.

Just in case any of you fit into the last camp, I will present a brief overview in a moment. But first I wonder if there is a pronounced divide between the other two camps among the rest of you. As you might suspect if you’ve been following my other posts, I fit into the second camp…though I recognize the importance of rationality as a beneficial component of the human condition. The thing we need to emphasize here is that many aspects of the Theory of Rational Action – which is often used to justify free market economic principles – are flawed in significant ways that are relevant to politics.

Brief Overview of Rationalism

Our understanding of rationality has been informed by the Enlightenment philosopher, Immanuel Kant. He worked diligently to develop the idea of Pure Reason, which he claimed to be the defining attribute of human beings. In order for there to be a form of reason that is universal to all humans, it is necessary to assume that all people reason in the same way.

Reason is defined as our human capacity to think logically, to set ends for ourselves, and to deliberate about the best means for achieving those ends. The doctrines resulting from Kant’s work include:

  • Morality must be based on pure reason alone.
  • The source of morality is our capacity to give moral laws to ourselves.
  • All moral laws are universally binding.
  • We have an absolute duty to treat rational creatures as ends-in-themselves and never as means only.
  • Morality can consist only of categorical imperatives such as “Act only on that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.”

Rationalism is built upon these doctrines. The Theory of Rational Action is an extension of Kant’s philosophy of morality. It is a mathematical theory that treats “rational choice” as being literal, logical, disembodied (existing independent of the human brain), dispassionate, and consciously calculable. This means a rational choice is a decision based on pure reason (devoid of emotion or passion) that has numerical merit as its sole means of comparing choices. In other words, to make a rational choice is to consider all of the options, weigh the benefits against the costs, and choose the option that maximizes self-interest (benefits – costs).

A Good Thing About Rationalism

Rationalism claims reason is what makes us human and all human beings are equally rational. This is a basic truism for democracy. This claim says anyone is capable of participating in government. Prior to the widespread acceptance of universal reason it was accepted as fact that only special people were fit to rule, such as a king or pope. (See how the truth of any fact is dependent upon context!) The discovery of universal reason allowed for the possibility for self-government through collective rule…democracy.

Limitations of Rationalism

Rationalism comes with several false theories about the mind:

  • Rationalism claims that all thought is conscious. Cognitive science research shows that most thought is not conscious.
  • Rationalism claims that all thought is literal. Yet we know from cognitive science research that thought is dependent upon frames, metaphors, and worldviews.
  • Rationalism claims that we all have the same form of reason. We know from cognitive science research that different people have different worldviews and may reach different conclusions from the same facts. Some aspects of reason are universal, but many others are not!
  • Rationalism claims that thought uses classical logic. Work in the cognitive sciences shows that logic is bound to the frames that structure our thoughts. “Real” logic does not work in the ways classical logic assumes.
  • Rationalism claims that thought is separate from emotions. We have learned that emotions play a critical role in effective decision-making and shape our moral intuitions.

Political Implications Are Profound

If rationalism were true, the world of politics would work very differently than it actually does. Rationalism says that people vote on the basis of their material self-interest, that they are consciously aware of why they voted for what they did, that they can tell a pollster what their most important concerns are, and that they vote for the candidates who best address those concerns.

We now know that this is not the way people actually vote. During the 1980 election there were many people who disagreed with Reagan’s position on a broad range of issues but still voted for him because they felt a connection with him personally. People do not vote for candidates who create a list of programs that address their concerns (the Laundry List Trap).

If you believed in rationalism you would believe that the facts will set you free, that you just need to give people the information, and they will make the right decision by reasoning their way through the facts. (My experiences in the world have shown that there are quite a number of people among us who still believe this is true!) What we need to realize is that the hidden structure of the concepts we use – a.k.a. frames – shape the pathway to possible solutions. Here is how it is described in Thinking Points on page 40:

“We know this is false, that if the facts don’t fit the frames people have, they will keep the frames (which are, after all, physically in their brains) and ignore, forget, or explain away the facts.”

The progressive world is filled with false notions about the human mind. Here are a few of them:

  1. Rationalist policy makers believe frames, metaphors, and worldviews play no role in characterizing problems or solutions to problems
  2. Rationalists believe that solutions are rational and that the tools used to arrive at them include classical logic, probability theory, game theory, cost-benefit analysis, and other aspects of the theory of rational action
  3. Rationalists believe in the classical theory of categories. This leads to the “issue silos” that presume health care is independent from environmental pollution or that social security has nothing to do with foreign policy (one key way these are connected can be seen by looking at the funding of the occupation of Iraq – social security funds are drained away!).

Rationalist-based political campaigns miss out on the heart of American politics. They overlook the symbolic, metaphorical, moral, emotional, and frame-based campaigns. Real rationality recognizes these crucially important aspects of mental life.

Exploring Cognitive Politics

Let’s talk about these issues. How has this information shaped your thinking about politics? What do you feel progressives need to do differently than we have in the past? Do you feel like any of the issues that arise from cognitive science findings will be difficult for progressives to deal with? Please share your thoughts with the rest of us. We would love to hear them!

(Part 3 of Chapter 3 will look at key words in politics including life, patriotism, and freedom that meaning entirely different things when framed in strict father and nurturant parent terms. We will explore these issues starting next Monday, April 9th, here on Rockridge Nation.)

Go to the next discussion in this series.


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