What makes us think?

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What makes us think? Is it intellect that determines how we analyze problems? If so, how is it that two people of equal intelligence can look at the same set of facts and reach different conclusions?

Let’s look at global warming. Two weeks ago, Columbus Business First carried an article about Bob Murray, the CEO of Murray Energy Corp., the no. 3 coal company in the U.S. Murray sees all the talk about saving the environment as “crony capitalism,” where President Barack Obama is “paying back the people that got him elected.” As for the science that says man has a role in global warming, “it’s not there. It’s not even close to being there.”

NASA, however, and other experts see plenty of science to support the conclusion that man is a significant factor in global warming. Why doesn’t Murry see the problem in the same way scientists do? Mind you, Murry is no dummy. He’s an engineer and responsible for 8000 employees. What gives?

George Lakoff, author of “Don’t Think of an Elephant,” would say the answer lies in peoples’ frames. “Frames are mental structures that shape the way we see the world. As a result, they shape the goals we seek, the plans we make, the way we act, and what counts as a good or bad outcome of our actions. In politics our frames shape our social policies and the institutions we form to carry out politics. To change our frames is to change all of this. Reframing is social change.

“You can’t see or hear frames. They are part of what cognitive scientists call the ‘cognitive unconscious’—structures in our brains that we cannot consciously access, but know by their consequences: the way we reason and what counts as common sense. We also know frames through language. All words are defined relative to conceptual frames. When you hear a word, its frame (or collection of frames) is activated in your brain.”

Lakoff sees conservatives and progressives as having two different sets of frames. The frames for conservatives are based on what he calls the “strict father” model, where discipline and protecting the family against a dangerous world are needed, and self-reliance and pursuit of self-interest will lead to success and prosperity, and prosperity is linked to morality.

Progressives, on the other hand, have frames that are based on a “nurturant parent” model, where empathy and responsibility both for yourselves and others are important. Ideals such as fairness, open communications and opportunity are also part of the model.

Whatever the fact or issue, it is matched against our own set of frames, and those frames determine the conclusions we reach. Sure, intelligence is important, but our frames call the shots.

Frames are incredibly important in promoting ideas. Lakeoff uses the example of former president George W. Bush’s tax relief plan. What helped propel it was the phrase itself.  Relief conjures notions of an affliction, and taxes are an affliction of sorts, and who doesn’t want to be relieved of an affliction?

Though they opposed the plan, Democrats fell into the trap of using the phrase when criticizing it, oblivious to the fact they were using a phrase that resonated with the opposition. Whatever facts the Democrats promoted were far less important than how the message of “relief” resonated with people. Democrats, Lakeoff said, shot themselves in the foot.

We see this dynamic in the wake of the San Bernardino massacre. When the phrase “gun control” is suggested as a means to reduce gun violence, the only thing gun enthusiasts hear is that the government wants to take their guns away—no matter what the message actually is.

Another factor is what Shawn Achor, author of “The Happiness Advantage,” refers to as the Tetris Effect, where people see only what they expect to see. (Apparently, if you play the game enough, you begin to see the Tetris shapes in everything.) If you’re a tax auditor, whose job is to spot errors, your tendency will be to always look for errors, even when off the job.  Similarly, if you base your life on a set of rigid principles, you might be blind to and unable to acknowledge other ideas that have merit.

No matter the position a person might occupy, frames and Tetris Effect determine outcomes. Look at the U.S. Supreme Court. Routinely, we can count on four justices to take a conservative position and four others to take a progressive position. Those eight justices are equally intelligent, experienced and scholarly. No matter, when subjects like gun rights or campaign contributions are before them, we can generally predict in advance how the eight will vote.

Of course, these eight justices would surely tell you they approach each case with an open mind. But what they think on a conscious level doesn’t matter. The frames that operate within their subconscious are what matter.

What about Justice Anthony Kennedy who is regarded as the “swing vote?” Lakeoff would say that Kennedy has a combination of both sets of frames, which allow him to be receptive to both conservative and progressive ideas.

The takeaway, says Lakeoff, is that facts are not enough to persuade people. If you want to influence, you have to use concepts that resonate with peoples’ frames. “If a strongly held frame doesn’t fit the facts, the facts will be ignored and the frame will be kept.”


Jack D’Aurora writes for


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  1. Bob  December 21, 2015

    Sounds like reshaping and rewording of core values?

    •  December 22, 2015

      I don’t think so. Rather, it’s a matter of knowing how to package a message so that it appeals to audience’s core values. I can say the same thing in different ways, but if I want to connect with you, I have to send that message in a way that resonates with you.

  2. Matt Schaeffer  December 21, 2015

    Fascinating topic, Jack. It dovetails nicely with your recent article on hyperbolic language. I chortled at Mr. Lakeoff’s framing of the frames: conservatives as “strict” and progressives as “nurturing.” I never thought of Teddy Roosevelt as a “nurturer.” And, George W. Bush must have anticipated Lakeoff’s book when Bush framed himself as a “compassionate conservative” (as compared to conservatives who cast themselves as indifferent, cruel, or sociopathic?).
    I do agree that “frames” appear to be a driving force in contemporary American politics. Tip O’Neill’s observation that “all politics is local” is quaint; it now appears that all politics is mostly mass marketing.

    •  December 22, 2015

      Your last sentence is killer!

  3. Dave  December 21, 2015

    Jack, that’s complicated reasoning and may very well be accurate. However I find most “factual” elements we see every day to be, well, manipulated to some degree. Sometimes to a significant degree. Take a study shows that 72% of Americans disagree with something…whatever. Depending on the news release, if the writer is in agreement with the issue, says 28% of Americans agree. When a person reads the article does their mind actually grasp that fully a strong majority of Americans disagree or do they simply see the words “Americans agree”? I think clearly they see the agree part and the myth becomes reality.

    Mr. Murray may have been a bit too cryptic but there is more right than wrong with his comments. And more wrong than right with the out of context pieces that are used being attributable to NASA and the “scientists” supporting human contribution to global warming.

    And regarding your renewed reference to gun enthusiasts hearing only that gun control means taking the guns away, I dare say that the gun haters also hear exactly the same thing. Why say gun control when violence control is the real issue, meaning figuring out the root cause. Something Mr. Trump would champion I’ll bet. Those morons in San Bernardino also had bombs. Haven’t heard anyone say we need bomb control have we?

    •  December 22, 2015

      The issue isn’t who is more right or wrong when it comes to global warming. The issue is why is there such a divergence of thought between Mr. Murray and NASA scientists. The fact that one side sees the facts as persuasive while the other side sees the facts as insufficient goes to the core of the subject of frames.

      As for guns, I stopped using the phrase “gun control” for a number of reasons, one of which you touched on. But here’s what is really interesting. Even though I don’t use the phrase when talking about gun violence, I can count some readers voicing concern about gun control and their guns being taken away.

  4. John Calhoun  December 21, 2015

    I believe unlike Mr. Murray that only a fool would deny that man’s foot print on God’s good earth is constantly growing (asphalt and concrete replacing grass and trees, also human waste in all forms). As for the old villian “green house gases” , I again ask this forum to explain where the “ozone” hole in the southern hemisphere went? Quit dropping waste in the oceans and see if El Nino goes the same way. Politics are local, tell the locals to properly recycle their wastes! Coal went away in the USA when we noticed acid rain lakes in New England!


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