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First, thanks for the comments and suggestion of books & advice I got after the last article.  Suggestions on other diaries would also be appreciated.

Framing What We Say

Using cognitive science, the importance of how we express ourselves has been discussed by scientists such as George Lakoff.  Unfortunately, a large part of the progressive community has not used this scientific knowledge to change how they word their public statements.  That's sad, as a crucial aspects of the progressive approach is its dedication to science and demonstrable facts rather than depending on faith and blind acceptance of authority.

Why haven't progressives done more to act on these scientific ideas?

* Perhaps, if they read an explanation with more common knowledge and less scientific details they would absorb more.
* The way progressives believe in intellectual reason may make them too inclined to think facts, regardless of how they're expressed, should convince people.
* Knowing what wording will get what response takes work, especially today.
* Working people don't necessarily need facts to convince them big business is screwing them. They're living that reality.

Maybe, this article will help give a more common sense view of how our brains work and why that makes our choice of words important.

Each person is molded by their unique individual experiences. Even identical twins are influenced by experiences that aren't precisely the same.  And if the twins are raised in different homes, the differences in experiences may be greater.  Twins end up with differences in their personalities, interests and inclinations.  Differences in a person's beliefs and predispositions aren't just a matter of intelligence, knowledge and wish to learn.  The most learned and respected university professors don't all agree on the correct view on politics, economics or other social sciences.  These professors have made their best understanding of their subject based on their unique worldview developed by their personal experiences which affects how they interpret facts and what details of their subject they've felt most interested in focusing on.

Babies aren't born with an understanding of the social world.  Each person has to figure it out herself.  The baby begins trying to make sense of her surroundings before she understands language.  Even after generally acquiring language, she will have a less than perfect understanding of what adults try to teach her.  Each person's most basic understanding of the world is her own experience-based conclusions.  Once she has established her core worldview, when she has further experiences she must understand she finds it easier to try to draw conclusions consistent with her previous worldview than to change her worldview to agree with the new experience.  Throughout this process, the brain creates structures to store its understanding of the world.  In order for the person to respond as quickly as possible to situations, the brain organizes itself to channel what we see and hear.  When the brain sees certain objects or hears certain words, it uses previous associations with those objects or words to tell the brain what previously learned responses to those objects or words usually seemed to work well.

The words we choose to use to express ourselves to others have consequences in which learned responses listeners act upon.  If we understand what general kinds of associations between words and learned responses are common in the population, we can use that to help choose our words.

Most people have had mixed experiences.  So their brains don't only have a single structure for a single learned response that might relate to a future experience.  A person can be more inclined to conservative responses to some issues and progressive responses to other issues.  They even often have multiple structures that could call different responses to the same issue depending on what words, images and emotions are used to initiate a response.  If we make a poor choice of words and emotion, we can cause a conservative response despite the logical content of our statements.  When we make a poor choice of words, it is one more life experience for the listener which reinforces her conservative learned response.  When we use the right wording, we strengthen any progressive learned response she has - which over time could become dominant.

Although progressives often prefer to think the statement of facts should be decisive, that doesn't have to be the case.  Our worldviews are developed, starting in infancy, by our brains which do a lot of their work on a subconscious basis.  We build up learned responses for quick reactions.  The brain does this by using our mental heritage from the animals - emotion.  Our brain associates certain kinds of wording and actions as "good" or "bad", "right" or "wrong".  The brain saves time and effort by having an association "king = bad."  It doesn't want to think through the reasons why monarchy is undesirable every time it hears the word "king".  When progressives feel a need to act on a "self-evident truth", that means our brains say it is "right" - we have an emotional association to it.  That's natural for humans.  It's a good thing we get excited and upset about injustices, not just have a cold, logical understanding about it.

We can't ignore the emotional associations other people will have to how we present our case.  Presenting calm facts is not as effective as combining emotionally-associated words and images with the facts.  Conservatives aren't shy about employing emotion.  We will be at a disadvantage if we don't.

"Thinking Points," a free introduction to Lakoff's approach is available online at:

That includes information on what kinds of wording are likely to cause progressive or conservative responses.  You can also try to see what key words effective progressive and conservative speakers tend to stress.  Ask yourself what words used by ineffective or "unreliable" progressive speakers feel like they misguide listeners.  Ask yourself if there are words that give you a moment of feeling a non-progressive reaction.

I would also suggest that there are some words which are used most commonly by those on the political left.  At least some of these terms will cause the average person to have a response "what I'm hearing is coming from a leftist".  Since the average person has been taught to one degree or another to be suspicious of leftists, it would seem wiser to avoid those words.  We can convey the same message without having to use a few words that aren't widely used by others.

Originally posted to workingwords on Tue Jan 08, 2013 at 01:57 PM PST.

Also republished by Logic and Rhetoric at Daily Kos.

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Comment Preferences

  •  I'm reading "The Republican Brain" and I'm not (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    far enough to add in that information here but I do think that that book and this diary are both going in the same direction. What we have known for some time, as progressives, is that we are terrible at narrative in comparison to the GOP. I'm always joking that we can't even manage to name things well while they are masters. Really, whomever it was on their side that came up with "right to life" and "right to work"was a rock star. How could ANYONE be against that, except, that we are. How we say things, what we call things, matters.

    I am a proponent of Modern Monetary Theory and one of the things all MMT economists struggle against (I gather) is the narrative that likens the federal budget to that of a family or a small business. They are, in point of fact, nothing alike. Still, the MMT folks have yet to come up with a SIMPLE, RELATABLE narrative that is powerful and positive enough to convey the tremendous possibilities contained in MMT and why they are genuinely important to Americans at this precise moment in time. When you hear people talking about the platinum coin, they are talking about part of MMT. I have tried to write simplified diaries that explain the basic ideas but I'm not writing a narrative, I am writing a simple, factual description (with jokes.)

    What your diary made me think of is the desperate need for there to be cross-pollination between fields. Somehow, the MMT people need to get themselves connected to the cognitive science people and find a way to convey dense, complex, essential economics in an accessible manner. Hmmm.

    "When in doubt, do the brave thing." - Jan Smuts

    by bunnygirl60 on Tue Jan 08, 2013 at 03:29:48 PM PST

    •  'right to work' (0+ / 0-)

      Especially with the new law in Michigan, the misnomer "right to work" is a newsy example.  I've been working on an item about that, perhaps I'll post a variant sooner.

      When we get a number of people discussing these narrative issues on this site, perhaps we can consider establishing a Daily Kos "group" about it.

  •  If you want to discuss things with a Frenchman... (0+ / 0-)

    ... or woman ^_^, things would go much better if you can speak French.

    Similarly, if you want to discuss things with a Conservative, things would go much better if you can speak "Conservative-ese"

    If you speak Liberal-ese like you usually do, the Conservatives will just tune you out.

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