If you lean progressive, then you’ve probably heard of George Lakoff, professor of cognitive science and linguistics at UC Berkeley and author of The New York Times bestseller, Don’t Think of an Elephant! Notwithstanding his unabashed political slant, Lakoff’s research is applicable for commercial purposes, too. I recently spoke with him to get his insights into how Americans think and how green communicators can cut through the confusion over sustainability.
You’re best known for writing about “framing the debate,” so let’s start with frames. What are they and how do they work?
Let’s begin with reason and how it works. Going back to the 1600s with Descartes, Enlightenment thinking assumes that reason is conscious, logical and rational. This is outmoded. We’ve since learned that reason is actually 98% unconscious. So, frames are the unconscious neural circuits that define how we think and talk. They are conceptual structures made up of metaphors, narratives and emotions, and they are physically part of the brain. We cannot avoid framing. The only question is whose frames are being activated in the brains of the public.
What activates frames?
Words activate frames. That’s why words are so important. A single word can activate not only the defining frame, but also the system its defining frame is in. The system of frames has, at the top, moral frames, so if you make any proposal that is social or political, the assumption is that you’re doing it because it’s “right”. Anything below the hierarchy activates everything at the top of the frame. Since political ideologies are characterized by systems of frames, ideological language activates the ideological system.
We’re taught that it is unwise to talk politics in business, but society is clearly polarized and marketers can’t ignore this problem. What should sustainability communicators understand about how their audiences filter language?
In America, there are two models of morality at work, what we call the “strict father” and the “nurturant parent”. Most people are actually moderates with both models present in different parts of their lives. But using the language of the “strict father” model, conservatives consistently invoke a system of frames, and when you activate a circuit, the synapses get stronger. Physically, more ion channels are opening up.
So, when you try to use reason to argue against the prevailing mindset, you actually strengthen the opposing position and weaken your own. You’re not just activating the particular frame about a hot-button issue, you are going all the way up their moral frames.
What’s an example of a word that triggers a “moral” response?
Consider the word “freedom”. Using the morality frame, conservatives have patented “freedom” and now progressives act as if they are scared of that word. Here’s a familiar policy example. Take the healthcare bill. The pollster that Obama used identified individual policies with 60%-80% popularity, and those became the conditions in the plan. However, even though each provision was very popular, only about 50% of the public actually supports it. How did the whole plan become unpopular when each provision was overwhelmingly popular? Any cognitive scientist will tell you that the policy parts don’t determine how the whole is perceived.
This is how progressives shoot themselves in the foot. They focused on communicating the policies, the statistics. Conservatives understand that communication has to do with the moral basis. (They never said anything about provisions. Instead, they said this was about “freedom and life.” They talked about a government takeover and death panels.
So, what should Obama have done? Not named it the “Affordable Care Act.” He should have used the word “freedom” in it. Bottom line, progressives can’t say, “They’ve already got that one.” It’s too important. We can’t let them get that word. … We reclaim it by using it over and over. … What about freedom from weather disasters and pollutants? … You need to name the issues then use the word repeatedly.
What about “energy independence”?
Well, that’s tricky. This is what we call a contested concept in linguistics. It could be a simple case that everybody agrees on but has complex properties and different values take that case and move it in different directions. Now, take that case and extend it further. That’s how “energy independence” could logically mean renewable energy to one group and “drill baby drill” to another. My book, Whose Freedom, gives a detailed account of how central notion of freedom is in communication.
There are many tripwires to avoid in marketing green ideas and products. What’s the secret to success?
You win by using your own frame. If you are asked, “Are you in favor of tax relief?” while being interviewed on Fox News, don’t reinforce their frame in your response. You instead say, “I’m in favor of having the public jointly get together an provide public education and health.”
So don’t challenge the opposition in their language. Tell a new story instead.
That’s right. Whatever you do, don’t try to dismantle common myths about such and such with a rational argument. It’s worse than ineffective. It’s shooting yourself in the foot because in stating their frame, you reinforce it.
Do any sustainability campaigns stand out as being particularly effective to you?
In terms of green marketing, most of it seems to be designed for liberals. Conservatives won’t be interested if it’s inconvenient for them or goes against some other tastes. Take all this stuff about getting rid of sugar. The problem is that it is being done stupidly. Campaigns that make fun of fat people are a complete disaster. A better approach would be to simply say, “Sugar is a poison. Here’s how the poison works. Stop poisoning. Be good to yourself. This is your choice.”
What is perpetuating confusion over sustainability?
Conservatives have set up an incredible infrastructure. It’s a vast, unseen communication system and it’s very effective. This has been pointed out over and over to progressives and few seem to recognize the danger. They think it’s just propaganda and so they ignore it.
Look at Alec (American Legislative Exchange Council). This is a co-ordinated communications effort planned over a decade to take over the national government through state legislatures. Then there’s the Leadership Institute in Virginia. These people see themselves as moral crusaders. They are “right” and they are sticking to principle. They have list serves. They have been training people in conservative messaging for over 20 years.
What else can we do to better communicate complex problems to the public without losing their attention?
Understand that there are two kinds of causation: direct and systemic. Every language in the world has direct causation in its grammar; no language has systemic causation in its grammar. Climate scientists are the worst offenders because they understand and use systemic causation at work, but in communication they think that “causation” means direct causation. This has nothing to do with their talent or how articulate they are. They just don’t know basic cognitive science.
Here’s a story. I’m at the Aspen Institute in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina. Gore and Kerry are there, but the smartest guy in the room is Ronald Reagan’s chief strategist, who was partly progressive on environmental issues. Anyway, the scientist gets up there and gives an excellent science lecture. A reporter asks him, “Did global warming cause Hurricane Katrina?” A scientist cannot say that there was direct causation, but what he should have done was explain the chain of events and then string it together to show how Hurricane Katrina was systemically caused by global warming. You have to connect the dots for your audience.
Any final advice for green communicators and marketers?
Yes! This is not hopeless. There is a lot to know and a lot to do. The best place to start is with the brain. Before you worry about crafting one more message, learn about cognitive science.
This article was originally published on Guardian Sustainable Business.