Professor of Cognitive Science, George Lakoff

The cognitive science and linguistics professor joins us to discuss the scientific factors behind the suggestive media messaging used by the Trump administration.

George Lakoff is an author, linguist and cognitive scientist. He is Director of the Center for the Neural Mind and Society at UC Berkeley. He is the Goldman Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at UC Berkeley, where he's taught since 1972. His research involves the application of cognitive and neural linguistics to politics, literature, philosophy and mathematics. Lakoff applies his work to analyzing political world views and the framing of issues in public discourse. He is working on a neural theory of thought and language that explains how meaningful ideas can arise from neural circuitry and their connections to the body. George Lakoff's books include Don't Think of an Elephant!Whose Freedom?, and The Little Blue Book: The Essential Guide to Thinking and Talking Democratic, among others.


Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.

So how does Donald Trump get people to believe whatever he says even while the media calls out one lie or false statement after another? It turns out that Trump’s simple insults and repetitive name-calling actually have a science behind them and it works.

Tonight then, a conversation with linguist and cognitive scientist, George Lakoff, about the science of framing and unconscious thought. We’re glad you’ve joined us. George Lakoff in just a moment.

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Tavis: George Lakoff has for years been studying political messaging and how people digest the language of public discourse. He is an author and professor emeritus of cognitive science at UC Berkeley.

He joins us now to talk about how failing to understand unconscious thought and moral world views has frustrated Democrats and progressives as they try to counter the Trump message with basic logic. Professor Lakoff, good to have you on the program.

George Lakoff: A pleasure to be here.

Tavis: Linguistically, size up Donald Trump for me.

Lakoff: Well, it’s not just linguistically. It’s mentally.

Tavis: Okay.

Lakoff: He knows how not just to speak, but how to change your brain and to affect your brain very, very effectively. He’s a super salesman and he’s very, very good at it. And you need to know a little bit about your brain, which is ideas don’t float in the air. They’re in your neurocircuitry. And if you have a world view, your understanding of the world in general, then that’s a lot of neurocircuits.

Those neurocircuits for a world view are fixed. Once they’re fixed, they become what you might call a neuro filter. You can only understand what your brain allows you to understand. So if you have only one world view, you’re stuck to understand things that fit that world view. And if information comes in that doesn’t fit it, it’ll be either not noticed, ignored, ridiculed or attacked.

Tavis: People choose, though, to have one world view, do they not?

Lakoff: Not necessarily. Very often, they’re brought up with it. I suspect that Donald Trump was brought up with the world view he has.

Tavis: When I say choose, I mean he could expand his world view if he wanted to.

Lakoff: I don’t think so.

Tavis: You don’t think so?

Lakoff: No. This is not something that you just consciously will. Remember, about 98% of thought is unconscious and beyond conscious control. Now many people, probably most, have more than one world view at once. What is a moderate? A moderate is somebody who has mostly one. If you’re a moderate conservative, you have some progressive views on various different things.

If you’re a moderate progressive, you have some conservative views on different things. And that means you have two different world views, but about different things. Neurally, that means those two world views contradict each other and the activation of one weakens the other. So if you can use language to activate your world view in somebody else, you have power.

Tavis: So tell me, then, how Trump connects his mental, his world view, with his linguistics?

Lakoff: First, repetition. Over and over and over, language means something. It activates what’s called a frame in your brain which is part of a world view. A good example, when George Bush first came into office, the first day he talked about tax relief which says that taxation is an affliction and the good guys try to get rid of that affliction, the bad guys want to keep it there.

Then every day after that, he repeated it, repeated it and repeated it until the New York Times started using tax relief on its front page and the Democrats took tax relief for the middle class and so on, taking the conservative understanding of taxation. This happens a lot.

Take regulation. Trump says he wants to get rid of regulation. What does that mean? From a corporate point of view, a regulation is something that imposes on your freedom, is a burden and it’s costly. But from the point of view of the public, regulations are there to protect you. They’re to protect you against unscrupulous corporations in all kinds of ways.

And what’s happening right now is that the Republicans in Congress are getting rid of regulations in the Food and Drug Administration, for example, regulations on proving that drugs are effective and that they work. 90% of the tests usually shows that most drugs don’t work, so if you get rid of those, you get 98% of the drugs out there that are supposed to be healing, not healing you.

They get rid of environmental regulations on clean water, clean air and things like that and so on. You get rid of regulations in the SEC. What does that mean? It means fraud is made okay.

So what happens is behind the scenes, regulations are getting rid of, but they’re not called protections. If you said, look, Trump has said he’s going to get rid of 75% of the government protections in the following areas, Food and Drug, clean water, clean air, how do you feel about being poisoned, right? Very different understanding.

Tavis: Is my mind so weak, though, that when I hear Trump say the same thing to me over and over and over again or treat the same thing over and over and over again, that I have no ability to resist that? I have no cognitive ability to process that differently?

Lakoff: You have to resist it all the time in order to stop it, but most people don’t. So it’ll happen over and over. People — he would say “crooked Hillary, crooked Hillary” until people thought that she was crooked about something when she wasn’t. You know, you get the idea of the “crooked press”, the press that is lying to you, lying, lying press. Well, the press isn’t lying. The press is trying…

Tavis: Fake news, fake news, fake news, fake news, yeah.

Lakoff: Fake news, fake news all the time until people get it as fake news, and most of the population has no choice about that. Most of the population can’t consciously resist all the time.

Tavis: Why?

Lakoff: Because that’s how brains work. If you have language that activates and idea which is physically there in your brain, every time it’s activated, it gets stronger. The more it’s repeated and activated, the stronger it gets.

Tavis: So are you telling me then that even though I have a basic fundamental sense of right and wrong, my mom and daddy raised me that way, if I hear a lie told to me enough times, the lie will overtake the good sense I have about what’s right and wrong, what’s just in the world?

Lakoff: I don’t know about you personally, but with a lot of people, the lying doesn’t matter. Let me tell you why.

Tavis: Wow! Hold up [laugh]. You got me on that one. So the lie doesn’t matter to a lot of people? Why?

Lakoff: Well, look. Think of it this way. All politics is about morality. It’s about right and wrong. If the politician says, “Do what I say”, it’s because it’s right, not because it’s wrong. They don’t say, “Do it because it’s evil” or “It doesn’t matter.” That means your notion of what’s right for you is what’s important here.

Now your very identity is defined by what’s right for you. You want to think of yourself as doing right all the time. That is the deepest part of your identity. It is the highest truth for you.

Now if you have what I’ll call strict father morality, which is what Trump has and what the Republicans mainly have, what that says is that that view of the world which is a view having to do with domination, that view of the world defines who you are, and it’s the higher truth.

So if something comes in and it doesn’t fit that and you happen to know it’s a lie, it doesn’t matter because the higher truth that defines your very identity is more important.

Tavis: Okay. You have completely undermined [laugh] every belief system I’ve ever had about the fact that our mind, our mind connected to our heart, is what drives us. It’s the strongest part of who we are, but now you’re telling me that my mind is so easily manipulated.

Lakoff: Some peoples’ minds are. Yours may or may not be, but most people are not consciously looking for what is going on opposing them. And most people don’t think about other peoples’ world views. One of the things about being a progressive is that you care about other people. You empathize with other people, and you want to know the truth.

If you want to know the truth, you worry about what other people are thinking and whether something is true or not. But if the issue is something very different, if you think of a family life as being a matter of father knows best, he has authority over you and physical authority.

He’s supposed to have tough love. If his children don’t obey him when he tells them what’s right, then they should be punished. They have to be punished. It’s his duty to punish them until they, you know, try to avoid the punishment, do what he says, and then if they do that and don’t do what just feels good, then they can go out in the world and be prosperous.

Well, there’s a logic there. If you are not prosperous, then that means you don’t have discipline which means you can’t be moral and you deserve your poverty. And that’s the view that people who are poor are lazy.

Now that’s a very common view in strict father thought. But there’s more to it than that because in that, there’s a view about the world in general. It says this view of the world, the strict father view of the world, is the natural view.

If it’s natural, if it’s the way the world actually functions, there is a hierarchy. It says that the people who have won out are the people who are the best people, and that gives you a hierarchy of who’s better than who. So religions have won out. God above man. We’re conquering nature. Man above nature. Nature is there for us to get whatever we can.

The strong above the weak. You know, you have to have a strong country, etc. if you’re going to beat out other countries. The rich above the poor. Well, they’re disciplined, they deserve it. Employers above employees. Well, they’re rich enough to be employers. You have western culture above non-western culture.

Adults above children. In 21 states, teachers and coaches can beat children with sticks if they don’t just show them respect all the time. You have America above other countries. America first, because we’re better. You have men above women. Whites above non-whites. Christians above non-Christians, straights above gays. That is that moral hierarchy because it says who has won out.

Now that moral hierarchy defines virtually all radical Republican positions on every issue. It’s one issue. It’s not whether someone is homophobic or not whether someone is a racist or a sexist or Islamophobic. It’s all of them together. They fit together seamlessly. That is what is behind the kind of America and the Americans who voted for Trump and it’s a very powerful kind of thing.

Tavis: If I take everything that you’ve just said, I could take that to mean — let me just back up. You gave a wonderful and powerful and poignant definition of what it means to be a progressive, at least, as I see my progressivism, okay?

But if I take what you offered as a definition to the nth degree, it sounds to me that progressives should be less caring and more caustic. In other words, if we want to win, if we want to defeat Donald Trump, then we should take on more of his ways. But that’s not the kind of people we want to be.

Lakoff: No, absolutely not.

Tavis: Okay. So what do we do then?

Lakoff: Here’s what you do. First of all, it’s important to understand that there are different kinds of conservatives. There are some who are moderate, that is who happen to have some progressive views on something or other. There are some who have what I’ll call in-group nurturance, in-group care, who care about their families or their neighbors or members of their church, in the Army, members of their platoon.

You know, they care about certain people and it could be their community, their neighbors, a larger community. So it’s important to see this, and I’ve experienced it. I grew up around such folks. When it comes to you’re being in your in-group, they take care of you. If there’s a forest fire, they’re out there manning the hoses. If there’s a flood, they’re swinging the sandbags.

They may have political views that are very different, but when it comes to care in their community and care for their neighbors, they’re right there, and that’s real care. That is where you can discuss things with them and appreciate who they are.

So when I was teaching this stuff, students would come to me and say, “Thanksgiving is coming. I’m going to encounter my grandfather. We’re going to have that grand fight again. I hate it. I can’t stand the very idea of it.”

I say, “Don’t fight with your grandfather. Your grandfather loves you. Tell you what. Ask your grandfather one question. What is he most proud of that he’s done for other people without consideration for himself? Ask that question.”

100% of the time, people will come back and say, “My grandfather has done three really terrific things. I disagree with him on other things, but I have to say he’s done some really good things for some people.” I say, “Only talk to him about those things and keep talking to him about what it means for him.” Because what that does is activate care and nurturance in his brain.

Tavis: So that works — this is getting fascinating. I love this. So that works, professor, if you’re talking to a neighbor who otherwise is a caring person. That’s different than talking to politicians who are pushing a particular partisan agenda.

Lakoff: Absolutely.

Tavis: So I’m all for trying to find common ground, but that assumes that they’re interested in finding common ground versus pushing this agenda down my throat.

Lakoff: They are not interested in finding common ground, so there are many things you have to do, depending on who you are. I’m involved in starting a citizens communication network to get people to think and to talk. Say protection instead of regulations. Don’t say regulations. Say these are protections and so on. There are hundreds of things like that.

Always shift the viewpoint to the public. For example, public resources that flow through the government are necessary for private enterprise and private life. You cannot have a business if you don’t have roads and bridges and airports and sewers, if you don’t have things that are given to you like science and technology in computer science and satellite technology and GPS systems and cell phones.

These are supported by our government and by your taxpayers, and they’re given to you by that. You don’t have medical technology and new drugs because the NIH has done it unless you have public resources.

What the conservatives are trying to do is get rid of public resources. That is what is happening every day in Congress, getting rid of public resources and public protections. Absolutely crucial, and it’s being hidden because people are criticizing Donald Trump. Now what Donald Trump is doing is making a front for that.

And criticizing Donald Trump directly is like saying don’t think of an elephant — I wrote a book called “Don’t Think of an Elephant!” — or Nixon saying, “I am not a crook.” You negate something and it makes people think of it. It strengthens the people you’re arguing against. What you need to do is argue for. Always frame things from your point of view when you start.

So suppose you’re in the press and you have to cover Trump. You’re in the media. What do you do? I’ve been in the program, on the media. That’s what I say. I say, “Look, first of all, is he going to try to divert attention for someone? Start with the real issues confronting the country and confronting him first, and tell the truth about those.

Then when you see a diversion like is he talking about Meryl Streep this week or something else, tell the truth about that diversion first. Then say, oh, by the way, he’s Tweeted the following which doesn’t fit the facts in this way. You say that in 30 seconds and then you go back to the real issues. Here, this is a diversion. It’s a way from these real issues, and then you go back to telling the truth.”

Tavis: There’s one big problem with that argument, and I totally concur with it. Donald Trump sells. He sells newspapers. He gets ratings. And what you just suggested we should do is to talk less about him and more about the other, but that ain’t how TV or radio or newspaper business works, man.

Lakoff: You’ve got it!

Tavis: We need clickbaits. We need clickbaits on lying stuff.

Lakoff: This is absolutely right. When I talked to the graduate students in journalism at UC Berkeley last March, I talked to them about just these things. And what they said was the head of CBS, the president of CBS, says, “It may be bad for the country, but having Trump on every day is good for the profits of CBS.”

Tavis: Mr. Moonves said that.

Lakoff: Les Moonves. He came out and said it.

Tavis: Sure.

Lakoff: Those graduate students said, “Why am I here in graduate school? I want to be an investigative reporter. Do I want to have to work for that?” My answer was, “You don’t have to work for that. You can be telling truths all the time saying things from the point of view of the public, not from the point of view of conservatism.

But you have to find a niche where you can do it. You have to find a way to do it and ultimately the people and the press have to get the courage to stand up to it.”

Tavis: I know this isn’t your field per se, but can you say a word about how they develop that? How does the press find its spine?

Lakoff: That’s a good question. It finds its spine because otherwise it will be useless. Otherwise, all they will be is spokespeople for Trump. That’s all they’re going to be. You know, “Okay, Kellyanne, tell me what I should say today? Okay, Kellyanne, I’ll just say it, yes” when they know it’s false.

Well, why are they in the business? What is your job if you’re a reporter? If you’re in the media, your job is to tell the truth for the public good, period. That is why you’re there. And if you’re not doing that, you shouldn’t be there.

Tavis: To what extent do you think the truth doesn’t matter? What I’m getting at here is whether or not we live in an era now where –how can I put this — the truth is what each of us determines it to be. Put another way, it’s truth if I believe it. Now if that’s where we are, then I don’t know that any of this matters.

Lakoff: Well, we’re partly there, and the reason we’re partly there is what I call the neuro filter. That is, if you hear some information that comes in and it doesn’t fit what your brain can understand or comprehend, you’re going to either change it or ignore it or attack it. One of those things. And in fact, I mean, lots of experiments show this.

If you go into neuroscience, it’s well-known. That’s what’s going to happen. This is a neuro filter. Now if you have both world views, the question is can you say things that fit one world view and fit the other world view? Fit the minor world view even if you’re mostly a conservative?

That is something that’s hard to do, but you have to understand that and study it. So it’s difficult to do and, with some people, if they are totally conservative, you have no choice. They’re going to go and hear and believe what Trump says, no matter what you say.

Now there are questions where they have mostly in-group nurturance and care about their families, about other people and so on and their neighbors. In those areas, there’s a chance to actually get them to think differently.

Tavis: So we’ve been talking for the better part of this conversation as we are now about the head. That’s why I wanted you to come on because that’s what you do. But where does the heart come in? Is there no link, professor, between the head and the heart?

Lakoff: They’re intimate. The heart is a metaphor for the rest of the body. All of your emotions come through your body. Every emotion, you know, is there in your body. We first discovered this back in the 80s when we started looking at the metaphors used for anger. I went to the person who studies the psychology of anger, how it works in your body, what the physiology is.

When you’re angry, your skin temperature goes up half a degree. That’s why you’re boiling mad. Your blood pressure goes up and your heartbeat rate goes up, so that’s why you explode. You have interference with accurate perception. That’s why you’re blind with rage.

You have interference with fine motor control which is why you get hopping mad. If you go through the actual language of anger to describe anger, there’s a logic to it, but it comes from the body. Antonio Damasio, a great neuroscientist, has pointed out that all of those things in the body are registered in the brain.

The brain and body aren’t separate. They’re linked to what you believe. They’re not disconnected from your beliefs. Your beliefs and your world view are not just intellectual. They’re embodied. Thought is embodied. It’s there emotionally and that is crucial.

One of the things that you need to do is to get involved in the way peoples’ bodies work. You can see by looking at Trump what his body is doing. I mean, it’s quite something. It’s very often you can see somebody up there and you can tell what they’re like by the way their bodies work.

Tavis: What do you see from Trump?

Lakoff: You see from Trump somebody who is aggressive, who is trying to dominate you, who is trying to put you down and trying to be above you in all ways, and so on. You see it actually physically in his face, in his mouth, in his hands, in his hand gestures, all the time.

Tavis: So if he’s going to be some version of — I was thinking about the movie, “The Manchurian Candidate” — I mean, if he’s going to be wired that way for the next four years, what are we to do? How do we sustain our hope for the next four years?

Lakoff: Well, that’s why we have a citizens communication network we’re setting up [laugh], you know. We’re trying to get everybody out there using social media and, every day, saying, “Look, you say protection. You don’t say regulations…

Tavis: Language matters.

Lakoff: Language matters, and actions matter, certain kinds of actions matter. Why was the Women’s March what it was? And why did it have to be women? Because it was about care. The criticism was each of those women had a different view, a different issue, etc.? No. They all had one issue: care.

And the point of a progressive Democratic government is it’s not just about elections. It’s about citizens caring for other citizens and working through that government for that care. Without care, there’s no democracy.

Tavis: That’s the quote of the day. Without care, there is no democracy. Now that I have conducted this conversation, I want to go home and watch it again [laugh]. It was so much that came out of this, I need to replay this thing. So I hope at home you recorded it as I am doing at my house right about now. Professor Lakoff, an honor to have you on. We’ll do this again, sir. I’m learning so much from you tonight.

Lakoff: What a pleasure.

Tavis: The pleasure’s all mine.

Lakoff: Look, I learned so much from you over the years. Thank you.

Tavis: You are very kind. Thank you, sir. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

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Last modified: February 8, 2017 at 1:30 pm