July 20, 2005

If Stanley Fish and Noam Chomsky had a Love Child

It would be Geroge Lakoff, he of the great "framing" debate. I was curious as to what this was all about, so I read this article. And what I discovered is that framing is what those of us outside of academia like to call "spin." Of course, according to Lakoff it's all much more scientifical than that, having to do with with fact that long term repetition of a particular "frame" will reprogram the neural pathways of the listeners so that they accept the frame as fact. We in the marketing profession refer to that as "brand recognition," but I guess that one was already taken.

Reading the article, I am not sure which portion astonishes me more--the fact that "framing," or "spin," or "brand recognition" seems like such a brilliant new concept in Washington (Hellooooo! What was Clinton, chopped liver?), or the fact that everyone seems anxious to accept a theory that reduces people to tiny little machines that have to be properly "programmed" in order for them to "understand the message." From the article:

According to Lakoff, Democrats have been wrong to assume that people are rational actors who make their decisions based on facts; in reality, he says, cognitive science has proved that all of us are programmed to respond to the frames that have been embedded deep in our unconscious minds, and if the facts don't fit the frame, our brains simply reject them.

No, wait. The above paragraph DEFINITELY astonishes me more. And I'm fairly certain that my old speech and debate teacher would tear out her remaining hair if she read Lakoff.

And here I thought that ideas, facts and cogent argument persuaded people. Guess I'm guilty of thinking outside the frame.

Posted by Big Arm Woman at July 20, 2005 12:20 PM


Posted by: BAW at July 20, 2005 02:42 PM

Lakoff is actually a very interesting cognitive scientist. He's not describing the way things should be, simply the way things are -- people really aren't entirely rational. His theory is based on a lot of empirical research, some of which I have read. As an empiricist, he's completely unlike Fish. I'd suggest reading one of his books or journal articles to understand him better. This one is good: http://www.ac.wwu.edu/~market/semiotic/lkof_met.html
but you can find plenty of others in your library.

Posted by: Chris Martin at July 20, 2005 04:28 PM

Well, yes, people aren't entirely rational. But that's not the same thing as completely irrational, which seems to form the basis of Lakoff's political theory.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at July 20, 2005 08:46 PM

Chris -

Yeah, I'm oversimplifying here, and I understand that the facts you'll get from a NYT article are somewhat, erm, "glossed."

But it seems as though the ideas that folks are running with are more along the "people are morons who can be talked into anything if we just get the words right" types. No, we're not all Spock. But convincing people of your argument is more than finding the "magic words."

Lakoff's ideas seem a bit deterministic to me as well, though perhaps that has been distorted in the article.

And I'm really curious about the big ongoing feud with Noam.

Posted by: BAW at July 21, 2005 09:31 AM

Lakoff's results like most lab results in psychology present correlations, with a number that shows how much of the variance in one variable is caused by another variable. You rarely end up finding that one variable, say framing, controls more than 50% of the variance in another variable, say thoughts. So Lakoff and all psychologists are pretty far from determinism. Perhaps the articles that Lakoff writes for a general audience aren't that clear. He does push framing, but I've never heard him say that his is the one true, exclusive solution.

Here's a quote from a letter from Lakoff to the New Republic: "I also advise Democrats to argue positions on the merits, starting with values, since values plus facts jointly constitute the merits of an issue. I tell Democrats not to depend on magic words: The real work in reclaiming political discourse is building up a system of ideas and arguments that expresses Democratic values effectively and honestly."

On persuasion, this post by Brian Leiter is also relevant.

Posted by: Chris Martin at July 21, 2005 01:24 PM