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How the news is framed & how it affects your brain

Archive for May 2012

Framing, distraction & “willpower”

“If quantum mechanics [metaphorical framing] hasn’t
profoundly shocked you, you haven’t understood it yet”.

– Niels Bohr (quote vandalism mine)

One of my overreaching aims for this blog is to spark enthusiasm & “eureka” moments. Unfortunately, familiarity with the term “framing” seems to give a false sense of “knowing all about it” for many people (especially busy journalists). Epiphanies (intellectual orgasms, sort of) will never occur with that bored, weary, “been there, done that” mindset – there are many new thrills and unpredictable insights to enjoy with this subject…

Particularly stimulating to me is recent scientific research on “willpower” and “self-control” – coming at it from my perspective of metaphorical framing, that is. “Willpower” is a Victorian metaphor which had (until recently) gone out of favour with psychologists:

As Victorians fretted over moral decay and the social pathologies concentrated in cities, they looked for something more tangible than divine grace, some internal strength that could protect even an atheist.
They began using the term willpower because of the folk notion that some kind of force was involved – some inner equivalent to the steam powering the Industrial Revolution.
(Baumeister & Tierney, ‘Willpower’)

The “force” and “energy” type metaphors (for ‘self-control’) have now come back into fashion among academics, it seems – thanks to some fascinating scientific research on “willpower depletion” (or “ego depletion”), etc. I’ll be summarising these findings in a short series of News Frames posts, but, meanwhile, if you have enough willpower to tear yourself away from Twitter and read a book, I’d recommend a couple of very readable popularisations of the topic: Willpower – Rediscovering our Greatest Strength, by Roy Baumeister & John Tierney, and Maximum Willpower: How to master the new science of self-control, by Kelly McGonigal.

Both books offer practical tips while giving an overview of the science. What they don’t do is join up with Lakoff-style research on cognitive semantics to provide a bigger and even more stimulating picture. That’s a picture I hope to modestly sketch out in a few articles (since nobody else seems to be doing it). As a taster: Lakoff has documented how we tend to think of self-control using metaphors of object control (eg inferences regarding forced movement of an object are applied to our abstract notion of “self”. This is noticeable in common expressions: “Have you been pushing yourself too hard lately?”).

“Never express yourself more clearly than you are able to think”.
– Niels Bohr

And, of course, it all dovetails (with enough ingenuity or bluffing on my part) with the equally important topic of media distraction – and how it’s probably damaging your brain. Years ago – before I was aware of either Lakoff’s work or the new science on ‘willpower’ – I wrote a brief piece called The Distraction System for my Anxiety Culture project. In it, I use the phrase: “tap into a reservoir of potential concentration” – which, at the time, seemed a dubious metaphor (I liked the sound of it, so left it in). Baumeister’s recent work indicates that far from being dubious, the “reservoir of potential concentration” metaphor seems a good ‘fit’ for what the recent scientific research tells us about the processes involved.

More to follow on this topic…

Graphics by NewsFrames

Written by NewsFrames

May 30, 2012 at 12:47 pm

‘Moral decay’ & other fun metaphors

(Essentials of framing – Part 3)

Media hysteria sometimes calms down a little (eg when the focus is on the decent, respectable people* rather than the bad people*). But it only takes one horrible crime to set it off again. Then we have: “moral decay”, “erosion of values”, “tears in the moral fabric”, a “chipping away” at moral “foundations”, etc. It shouldn’t be surprising that these metaphors for change-as-destruction tend to accompany ‘conservative’ moral viewpoints rather than ‘progressive’ ones.

If True Moral Values™ are regarded as absolute and unchanging (which seems the case with ‘Strict Father’, ie ‘Authoritarian’, moral schemes – see Parts 1 & 2), then change to the way we think about moral issues must be seen as a threat. And since standards do change in society over time (for numerous reasons, and whether we like it or not), advocates of Strictness Morality see moral decay everywhere, and may believe that “society is going to hell” (or “turning to shit”) – they might even yearn for some Golden Age, a mythical time before things started “degenerating”.

“Moral Purity” & “Moral Health”

Associated with moral ‘decay’ is the metaphor of impurity, ie rot, corruption or filth. This extends further, to the metaphor of morality as health. Thus, immoral ideas are described as “sick“, immoral people are seen to have “diseased minds”, etc. These metaphorical frames have the following consequences in terms of how we think:

1. Even minor immorality is seen as a major threat (since introduction of just a tiny amount of “corrupt” substance can taint the whole supply – think of water reservoir or blood supply. This is applied to the abstract moral realm via conceptual metaphor.)

2. Immorality is regarded as “contagious”. Thus, immoral ideas must be avoided or censored, and immoral people must be isolated or removed, forcibly if necessary. Otherwise they’ll “infect” the morally healthy/strong. Does this way of thinking sound familiar?

In Philosophy in the Flesh, Johnson & Lakoff point out that with “health” as metaphor for moral well-being, immorality is framed as sickness and disease, with important consequences for public debate:

“One crucial consequence of this metaphor is that immorality, as moral disease, is a plague that, if left unchecked, can spread throughout society, infecting everyone. This requires strong measures of moral hygiene, such as quarantine and strict observance of measures to ensure moral purity. Since diseases can spread through contact, it follows that immoral people must be kept away from moral people, lest they become immoral, too. This logic often underlies guilt-by-association arguments, and it often plays a role in the logic behind urban flight, segregated neighborhoods, and strong sentencing guidelines even for nonviolent offenders.”

Enemies everywhere, everything a threat

So, to conclude from Parts 1, 2 and the above – there’s a lot to fear from the perspective of ‘Strictness Morality’: the world’s a dangerous place, there’s immorality (and indeed “evil”) all over the place, lurking everywhere, ready to jump out at you. And any weakness that you manifest will be punished. Even the good, decent people are competing ruthlessly with you, judging you for any failure.

“That’s not Charlie the Tuna out there… it’s Jaws.”
G. Gordon Liddy (US shock-jock)

In a way, this moral framing logically requires that the world is seen as essentially dangerous. Remove this premise and Strictness Morality ‘collapses’, since the precedence given (in this scheme) to moral strength, self-discipline and authority (over compassion, fairness, happiness, etc) would no longer make sense.

Tabloid newspapers appear to have the function of reinforcing the fearful premise with daily scaremongering – presumably because it’s more profitable than less dramatic “news”. But this repeated stimulation of our fears affects our brains at a synaptic level. The fear/alarm framing receives continual reinforcement.

And pretty soon that’s how we start to think…

See also:
Part 1 of this article
Part 2 of this article

* ‘Decent, respectable people’: the ones in suits with money and power; the authorities.
‘Bad people’: potentially everyone else; insignificant but awkward types, you & me.

Written by NewsFrames

May 17, 2012 at 8:12 am

Essentials of framing – Part 2

‘Strict Father’ (or ‘Authoritarian’) moral framing (which underlies ‘conservative’ ideology – see part 1) affects us in many ways…

We’re constrained by ‘social attitudes’ which put moral values in a different order than our own. Moral conflicts aren’t just about “good” vs “bad” – they’re about conflicting hierarchies of values.

“Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists”
– George W. Bush

“If you can’t be polite to our guests, you have to sit at the kiddies’ table”
– Hannibal Lecter

For example, you mightn’t regard hard work or self-discipline as the main indicators of a person’s worth – but someone with economic power over you (eg your employer) might…….

→ “Laziness is bad”
Under ‘strictness’ morality, self-indulgence (eg idleness) is seen as moral weakness, ie emergent evil. It represents a failure to develop the ‘moral strengths’ of self-control and self-discipline (which are primary values in this worldview). At this point you might want to reflect on how much the Puritan work ethic has affected your life in terms of hours spent in “productive employment” (or “pointless drudgery”).

→ “Time-wasting is very bad”
Laziness also implies wasted time according to this viewpoint. So it’s ‘bad’ in the further sense that “time is money” (see part 1). Inactivity and idleness are seen as inherently costly, a financial loss. People tend to forget that this is metaphorical – there is no literal “loss” – and the frame excludes notions of benefits (or “gains”) resulting from inaction/indolence.

“Welfare is very, very bad”
Regarded (by some) as removing the “incentive” to work, welfare is thus seen as promoting moral weakness (ie laziness, time-wasting, “dependency”, etc). That’s bad enough in itself (from the perspective of Strictness Morality) – but, in addition, welfare is usually funded by taxing those who work. In other words, the “moral strength” (see part 1) of holding a job isn’t being rewarded in full – it’s being taxed to reward the “undeserving weak”.

Thus welfare is seen as doubly immoral in this system of moral metaphors. Of course, others would argue that the “disincentive” to work is provided not by welfare but by work itself – or rather by its long hours, soul-crippling tedium and low pay…

But that’s a different kind of framing.

“Might is right”

In ‘Strict Father’ (ie ‘Authoritarian’) morality, one must fight evil (and never “understand” or tolerate it). This requires strength and toughness and, perhaps, extreme measures. Merciless enforcement of might is often regarded as ‘morally justified’ in this system. Moral “relativism” is viewed as immoral, since it “appeases” the forces of evil by affording them their own “truth”.

“We don’t negotiate with terrorists… I think you have to destroy them. It’s the only way to deal with them.” (Dick Cheney, former US Vice President)

There’s another sense in which “might” (or power) is seen as not only justified (eg in fighting evil) but also as implicitly good: Strictness Morality regards a “natural” hierarchy of power as moral, and in this conservative moral system, the following hierarchy is (according to Lakoff’s research) regarded as truly “natural”: “God above humans”; “humans above animals”; “men above women”; “adults above children”, etc.

So, the notion of ‘Moral Authority’ arises from a power hierarchy which is believed to be “natural” (as in: “the natural order of things”). Lakoff comments:

“The consequences of the metaphor of Moral Order are enormous, even outside religion. It legitimates a certain class of existing power relations as being natural and therefore moral, and thus makes social movements like feminism appear unnatural and therefore counter to the moral order.” (George Lakoff, Moral Politics, p82)

In this metaphorical reality-tunnel, the rich have “moral authority” over the poor. The reasoning is as follows: Success in a competitive world comes from the “moral strengths” of self-discipline and self-reliance – in working hard at developing your abilities, etc. Lack of success, in this worldview, implies not enough self-discipline, ie moral weakness. Thus, the “successful” (ie the rich) are seen as higher in the moral order – as disciplined and hard-working enough to “succeed”.

If that seems no more than just a cynical rationalisation for greed and privilege, consider the notion of the Protestant roots of capitalism (nicely summed up here by Encyclopædia Britannica):

Protestant ethic, in sociological theory, the value attached to hard work, thrift, and efficiency in one’s worldly calling, which, especially in the Calvinist view, were deemed signs of an individual’s election, or eternal salvation.

German sociologist Max Weber, in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904–05), held that the Protestant ethic was an important factor in the economic success of Protestant groups in the early stages of European capitalism; because worldly success could be interpreted as a sign of eternal salvation, it was vigorously pursued.

As someone whose views tend to fall into the left-libertarian category, I got attracted to this field (Cognitive Linguistics, Frame Semantics) because it provides a way to understand right-authoritarian thinking/morality (which I don’t “condone” any more than I condone drowning puppies en masse). The usual temptation – on the left – is to regard the ‘other side’ as immoral or amoral, lacking in any moral sense, driven only by greed, etc. But that’s close to viewing ‘them’ as subhuman – and before long you’re thinking in authoritarian-style, yourself.

Of course, none of this means that Lying Bastards & crooks are scarce in the political realm…

See also:
Part 1 of this article
Part 3 of this article

Graphics by NewsFrames

Written by NewsFrames

May 3, 2012 at 8:04 am

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