Framing, distraction & “willpower”
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…
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