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Progressives’ Wrong Ideas About Human Reasoning Defeats Their Efforts — George Lakoff

This snowy morning I watched an interesting lecture given by George Lakoff on ForaTV. This lecture (embedded below) makes me want to know more about Lackoff’s thinking, and so I am going to get one of his books:  “The Political Mind” or “Don’t Think of an Elephant!”

Lakoff’s message is that progressives are losing to the right wing in the contest to appeal to the thinking of American citizens. Progressives are losing, according to Lakoff, because, in their efforts to communicate and to influence, they are applying an invalid theory of human reason and, on the other hand, the right wing is applying a scientific theory.

Many progressives, says Lakoff, “Still believe in enlightenment reasoning — if you tell people truth, they will reason to the right conclusion.” But, according to Lakoff, this 18th century view of thinking and human reason is dead wrong.  Lakoff says this “folk theory of reason” is widely held, but its “common sense” assumptions are wrong:

  • Conscious — you know when you are reasoning
  • Abstract and disembodied
  • Fits the world as it is — so that if you know the facts you can reasons to the right conclusion
  • Dispassionate — emotion is suppose to get in the way of reason
  • Universal — we all have the same reason and that’s what makes us human beings
  • Purposeful — it seeks to serve the reasoner’s self interest

These assumptions seem so reasonable that it is hard to believe they all are flat wrong.  But, Lakoff in his lecture destroys each of these assumptions, beginning with the first. Lakoff makes the mind numbing assertion that, according to science, 98% of our reasoning, in fact, is unconscious.

If 98% of our reasoning is unconscious, the big question is, “How are issues realized in the brains of our citizens?”

If understanding is not based on enlightenment reasoning, and organized logic, then how does understanding come about?  As I read him now, Lakoff argues that understanding comes from the manipulation of metaphors and frames of thinking. He makes the point that the right wing has been much more effective in framing issues to their advantage.

Lakoff says, “if you want to be a good citizen, you should know how your brain is working.” He explains: “The brain is not a general purpose reasoning devise — it is structured to run a body. You are not understanding the world in itself. You do not understand the world just in itself. What you always understand is what your brain allows you to understand.”

I want to read Lakoff’s books to better understand his POV. His work on human reason, human understanding, has big implications for public education.

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3 comments to Progressives’ Wrong Ideas About Human Reasoning Defeats Their Efforts — George Lakoff

  • Stan Hirtle

    This sounds like the plot of science fiction movies like the Matrix or Inception where people experience different unreal levels of apparent reality. Or some version of “postmodernism” which argues that there is no single valid narrative and particularly not the enlightment narrative. While the ideas of democracy and rights of people that were part of the enlightenment can seem like a blip in a history otherwise filled with domination and control, I’m not sure where Lakoff gets you. Perhaps the brain evolved to run a body and not to understand the universe, and that is why so many people do not “believe in” findings of science like evolution, quarks, superstrings quantum theory and multidimensions, that we do not experience or which do not fit into some narrative that fills gaps in our understanding but are needed for dialy life. However I am not sure what it means if “98% of our reasoning is unconscious.” So what? Certainly the role of appeals to emotion, and particularly anxiety, have proven to be effective politically in these anxiety-producing times when peoples’ values and livelihoods are perceived as being threatened. People also like to feel hopeful and do not like feeling powerless, so they are not that likely to invest emotionally in taking on enemies that appear to be too powerful. Exploiting these emotions is certainly something that conservatives have been better at politically, but this is not because of the nature of reason. It may be because reason is less important in peoples’ lives than emotion is, or because progressives have not, at least since the civil rights era, been able to combine a sense of optimism and hope combined with anger (emotion) with a vision of society that people can believe they can get to (reason). Obama’s efforts in that direction proved quite ephemeral once he took up the reins of bureaucracy and power (or more accurately, his inability to date to overcome the structural economic problems he inherited.)

  • Mike Bock

    Stan you write, “I am not sure what it means if ‘98% of our reasoning is unconscious.’ So what?”

    That 98% figure caught my eye as well. I’m not sure what it means. Lakoff’s POV is that individuals are much more subject to manipulation and thought control than what has ever seemed plausible. The art of advertising and persuasion is knowing how to communicate with and influence this 98% region. And such communication is indirect — through “framing” and manipulation of metaphors — rather than logical and direct. Progressives, according to Lakoff, have been slow to use modern marketing because progressives are embedded in the enlightenment POV that asserts that reason is a conscious activity, that decisions are made logically, and, that people understand what is in their own best interests. If enlightenment thinking dominated our society, then we would be in a strong progressive era, rather than in a time of conservative upsurge. Lackoff’s 98% figure is part of his attempt to explain how people have been so manipulated to oppose their own best interests.

    The 98% figure also caught me eye because of my interest in transforming public education. Our public education system uses theories of thinking, consciousness and learning that dominated educators thinking in 1920, and before. Although science has made big breakthroughs in understanding the human brain, human learning and the processes and conditions needed for intellectual maturation, public education has failed to design a system that would exploit these breakthroughs to transform the educational system.

    We are in an exciting age of science where new and basic understandings of reality are ever opening to us. In 20 years, it seems likely to me, that we will have new and astounding insights into human nature — our consciousness and our thinking — and these astounding insights will be used to create advanced systems of artificial intelligence. We are in an era where the world’s best chess players and best “Jeopardy” players are computers. It seems likely that many now living, will see the time when the world’s best engineers and best architects will be machines, and computers will exhibit amazing “intelligence.” What then, at that future time, should be the education of humans? Thinking about the future purpose of education is a good way to begin to redesign the purpose of education today.

    This coming huge breakthrough in technology will mean that humans will be able to manipulate the physical world in amazing ways. It seems to me that we are in a era when the potential for the production of wealth will be limitless. The huge issue that faces us is creating a social system that would fulfill that potential in such a way that everyone benefits with “liberty and justice.” Our huge issue, even today, is how do we get our system to work? Even today, with today’s technology, we have the capacity to produce enough wealth so that no human should have any material deprivation. The crisis of our time is that we lack the imagination and the will to make our society work. The problem is profound and Lackoff’s insights — 98% of human reasoning is unconscious, etc — remind us that our hope to build a positive future for coming generations will depend on whether we can fulfill the command “Know thyself,” and then will use that knowledge for good.

  • Stan Hirtle

    I would say the reason for conservative success is not unconscious reasoning, but emotion, particularly anxieties and fears over societal and technological change, the loss of roles that give us value and meaning, and fear that others with more power will take advantage of us and those we care about for their own gain, in part because of our own capacity to do the same. Much of today’s conservatism is an emotional state. We can look to human history, where the civilizations we know are but a blip of history, and the industrial age, the “Enlightenment” and certainly the age of computers and cell phones are a blip within a blip. Enlightenment can only function if anxiety is under control. Interestingly conservative economists often posit the rationality of a capitalist economy, the people who run the real capitalist economy know better and sell to emotions. The world depicted in advertising is a fantasy world, often with the things we don’t get out of real life, close friends and family, exciting outdoor activities, kinds of happiness. Politics on the other hand is about generating mistrust and anxiety toward the other and on the mediating that with “us against them” feelings of shared contempt and derision. The other kind of politics, the high road, often builds on shared hope for a better future, security and community, all of which require levels of trust and confidence. Human advancement is often a struggle between these, and both have been significant in the survival and rise of humans as well as moments of inhumanity and horror. Whether brains are “wired” to perform one or the other or mediate between them remains to be seen. What kind of society we may have where meaningful employment may beome a luxury, luxury itself is reaching extreme heights, but large portions of the world survive in the face of poverty, disease and unenlightened governance, also remains to be seen.

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