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About media framing • (written by Brian Dean)

Archive for the ‘‘cognitive unconscious’’ Category

Framing vs “Orwellian language”

big-brother-newsframes-smApril 24, 2014Orwell’s fiction ‘memes’Newspeak, doublethink, Big Brother, etc – still sound resonant to me, but his famous essay, Politics and the English Language, seems outdated (and wrong) in important respects. Of course, you can’t blame Orwell for not knowing what cognitive science and neuroscience would discover after his death – most living people still have no idea how those fields have changed our understanding of language and the mind over the last 35 years.

Orwell’s essay is premised on a view of reason that comes from the Enlightenment. It’s a widespread view that’s “reflexively” still promoted not just by the “liberal-left” media and commentariat, but also by the Chomskyan “radical left”. And, as George Lakoff and others have been at pains to point out, it’s a view of reason which now seems totally wrong – given what the cognitive/neuroscience findings tell us.

I’ll return to Orwell in a moment, but, first: Why does the Enlightenment view of reason seem wrong? Well, it’s an 18th-Century outlook which takes reason to be conscious, universal, logical, literal (ie fits the world directly), unemotional, disembodied and interest-based (Enlightenment rationalism assumes that everyone is rational and that rationality serves self-interest). It follows from this viewpoint that you only need to tell people the facts in clear language, and they’ll reason to the right, true conclusions. As Lakoff puts it, “The cognitive and brain sciences have shown this is false… it’s false in every single detail.”

From the discoveries promoted by the cog/neuro-scientists, we find that reason is mostly unconscious (around 98% unconscious, apparently). We don’t know our own system of concepts. Much of what we regard as conceptual inference (or “logic”) arises, unconsciously, from basic metaphors whose source is the sensory and motor activities of our nervous systems. Also, rationality requires emotion, which itself can be unconscious. We always think using frames, and every word is understood in relation to a cognitive frame. The neural basis of reasoning is not literal or logical computation; it entails frames, metaphors, narratives and images.

So, of course: we have different worldviews – not universal reason. It seems obvious, but needs repeating: We don’t all think the same – only a part of our conceptual systems can be considered universal. So-called “conservatives” and “progressives” don’t see the world in the same way; they have different forms of reason on moral issues. But they both see themselves as right, in a moral sense (with perhaps a few “amoral” exceptions).

Many on the left apparently find this difficult to comprehend. Given the Enlightenment premise of universal reason, they think everyone should be able to reason to the conclusion that conservative (or “Capitalist”) positions are immoral. All that’s needed, they believe, is to tell people the unadorned facts, the “truth”. And if people won’t reason to the correct moral conclusions after being presented with the facts, that must imply they are either immoral or “brainwashed”, hopelessly confused or “pathological”.

Few people have exclusively “conservative” or exclusively “progressive” views on everything. We all seem to have both modes of moral reasoning in our brains. (The words “conservative” and “progressive” may seem somewhat arbitrary, inadequate categories, but the distinct “moral” cognitive systems which they point to seem far from arbitrary – see Lakoff’s Moral Politics). You can think “progressively” in one subject area and “conservatively” in others, and vice-versa. And you might not be aware that you’re switching back and forth. It’s called “mutual inhibition” – where two structures in the brain neurally inhibit each other. If one is active, it will deactivate the other, and vice-versa. To give a crude example, constant activation of “conservative” framing on, say, the issue of welfare (eg the “benefit cheats” frame) will tend to inhibit the more “progressive” mode of thought in that whole subject area.

It’s a fairly common experience for me to chat with someone who seems rational, decent, friendly, etc; and then they suddenly come out with what I regard as a “shocking” rightwing view – something straight out of, say, UKIP – a view which they obviously believe in sincerely. This shouldn’t be surprising given the statistical popularity of the Daily Mail, Express, UKIP, etc, but it always conveys to me – in a ‘visceral’ way – the inadequacy of certain left/liberal assumptions about how reasonable, “ordinary” (as opposed to “elite”) people are “supposed” to think.

Orwell’s ‘Politics and the English Language’

To return to Orwell and his essay – he writes that certain misuses of language promote a nefarious status quo in politics. For example, he argues that “pretentious diction” is used to “dignify the sordid process of international politics”. He says that “meaningless words” such as “democracy” and “patriotic” are often used in a consciously dishonest way with “intent to deceive”. The business of political writing is one of “swindles and perversions”; it is the “debasement of language”. For Orwell, it is “broadly true that political writing is bad writing”, and political language “has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness”.

Much of this still seems valid (nearly 70 years after Orwell wrote it) – and some of the examples of official gibberish that Orwell cites are as amusing as what you might see in today’s political/bureaucratic gobbledygook. But it’s the cure that Orwell proposes which embodies the Enlightenment fallacy (and which Lakoff, for example, has described as “naive and dangerous”):

What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around. In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is surrender to them… Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one’s meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations. Afterward one can choose — not simply accept — the phrases that will best cover the meaning… (George Orwell, Politics and the English Language)

Orwell then provides a list of simple rules to help in removing the “humbug and vagueness” from political language (such as: “Never use a long word where a short one will do”). He states that “one ought to recognize that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language”, and that, “If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of [political] orthodoxy”.

What are the fallacies here? Well, most obvious is the notion that political propaganda can be resisted with language which simply fits the right words to true meanings, without concealing or dressing anything up. Anyone who has studied effective political propaganda will tell you that it already does precisely that. The most convincing, persuasive propaganda, rhetoric or political speech seems to be that which strikes the reader or listener as plain-speaking “truth”. In many ways, the right seems to have mastered this art.

The fallacy comes from the Enlightenment notion that because people are rational, you only need to tell them the “plain facts” for them to reason to the truth. We know, however, that facts are interpreted according to frames. Every fact, and every word, is understood in relation to a frame. To borrow an example from my previous article, you can state that “corporations are job creators”, and you can state that “corporations are unaccountable private tyrannies”. Two different frames, neither of which consists of “debasement” of language or factual deception. Rather, it’s a question of activating different worldviews.

Orwell’s notion of letting “the meaning choose the word” seems to imply that our “meanings” exist independently of the semantic grids and cognitive-conceptual systems in our brains. Again, this comes from the Enlightenment fallacy – that there’s a disembodied reason or “meaning” which is literal (or “truth”), and which we can fit the right words to, in order to convey literal truth. It seems more accurate to say that we need conceptual frames to make sense of anything – or, as the cognitive scientists tell us, we require frames, prototypes, metaphors, narratives and emotions to provide “meaning”.

A lot of political/media rhetoric does seem to conform to Orwell’s diagnosis, and its language can probably be clarified by his rules and recommendations. But it’s not this “vague”, “pretentious”, “deceptive” type of rhetoric or propaganda that worries me most. What worries me is the rightwing message-machine’s success (if we believe the polls/surveys) in communicating “plain truths” to millions by framing issues in ways which resonate with people’s fears and insecurities – and which tend to activate the more “intolerant”, or “strict-authoritarian” aspects of cognition, en masse.

Written by NewsFrames

April 24, 2014 at 8:40 am

Misconceptions about framing

My last post brought up some comments which reminded me of common “misconceptions” about Frame Semantics. Here are some extracts from George Lakoff’s book, Thinking Points, which will hopefully clarify things a little…

Frames and Brains

“Framing” is not primarily about politics or political messaging, or communication. It is
far more fundamental than that: Frames are the mental structures that allow human
beings to understand reality—and sometimes to create what we take to be reality.
But the discovery and use of frames does have an enormous bearing on politics.
Given our media-obsessed, fast-paced, talking-points political culture, it’s critical that
we understand the nature of framing and how it can be used.

Political framing is really applied cognitive science. Frames facilitate our most basic
interactions with the world—they structure our ideas and concepts, they shape the way
we reason, and they even impact how we perceive and how we act. For the most part,
our use of frames is unconscious and automatic—we use them without realizing it.

Erving Goffman, the distinguished sociologist, was one of the first to notice frames
and the way they structure our interactions with the world. Goffman studied institutions,
like hospitals and casinos, and conventionalized social behavior, like dating and
shopping. He found something quite remarkable: Social institutions and situations are
shaped by mental structures (frames), which then determine how we behave in those
institutions and situations.

To describe this phenomenon, he used the metaphor of “life as a play.” For instance,
consider the hospital frame, with its clearly defined roles: doctor, surgeon, nurse,
orderly, patient, visitor, receptionist, janitor, and so on. There are locations where
scenes play out: the operating room, the emergency room, the recovery room, the
waiting area, and patient rooms. There are props: the operating table, scalpels, bandages,
wheelchairs, and so on.

The hospital frame also has an internal logic, because there are fixed relations and
hierarchies among the roles: Doctors are superior to nurses, who are superior to
orderlies; all surgeons are doctors, but not vice versa; surgeons perform operations in the
operating room.

Conversely, the hospital frame rules out certain behavior, because it determines what
is appropriate and what isn’t: Orderlies or visitors do not perform operations; surgeons
don’t empty bedpans; operations are not performed in the waiting area; visitors bring
flowers to the patients, but surgeons don’t bring flowers to orderlies.

All of us know thousands of such frames for everyday conventionalized activities,
from dating to taking buses to getting money at an ATM to eating at a restaurant.
Many frames come with language that is meaningless outside that frame: surgeon,
emergency room, waiter, bus driver, PIN. Without operations, a surgeon would be
meaningless. Just as a waiter would be without restaurants.

Political disputes are sometimes about how frames interact and whether one frame
takes priority over another. Can the FBI search a congressman’s office for evidence of
corruption? That is, does the administration frame include law enforcement jurisdiction
over Congress?

Frame structures also appear on a smaller scale. Charles Fillmore, one of the world’s
great linguists, has studied how everyday frames work at the level of sentences. The verb
“accuse,” for example, is defined with respect to an accusation frame, with semantic
roles: accuser, accused, offense, and accusation. The accuser and accused are people (or
metaphorical people, like corporations), the offense is an action, and the accusation is a
speech act, in particular, a declaration. The offense is assumed by the accuser to be bad,
that is, illegal or immoral, and the accuser is declaring that the accused did perform the

Lessons from Cognitive Science

1. The use of frames is largely unconscious. The use of frames occurs at the neural level,
so most people have no idea they are even using frames, much less what kind of frames.
Thus, the conservative message machine can impose its frames without the public—
progressive or not—being aware of them. For example, the “war on terror” frame has
been imposed by conservatives but used by independent journalists and even by many
progressives without much comment. In another area, Time magazine ran the headline
“Illegals!” for a feature article on immigration. Democrats have used the “tax relief”
frame without being aware that it undercuts their own views.

2. Frames define common sense. What counts as “common sense” varies from
person to person but always depends on what frames are in the brain and how frequently
they are used and evoked. Different people can have different frames in their brains, so
“common sense” can differ widely from person to person. However, in getting their
frames to dominate public discourse, conservatives have changed “common sense,” and
progressives have been letting them get away with it. Progressives should become
conscious of framing that is at present accepted unconsciously as “common sense” but
that hides the deep problems.

3. Repetition can embed frames in the brain. One of the funniest bits on Jon
Stewart’s The Daily Show is video clips it runs of right-wing leaders and spokespeople
using the same words over and over on the same day. The technique of repetition of the
same words to express the same idea is effective. The words come with surface frames.
Those surface frames in turn latch onto and activate deep frames. When repeated over
and over, the words reinforce deep frames by strengthening neural connections in

The problem of rationalism

Understanding frame analysis means becoming aware of one’s own mind and the minds
of others. This is a big task. We were not brought up to think in terms of frames and
metaphors and moral worldviews. We were brought up to believe that there is only one
common sense and that it is the same for everyone. Not true. Our common sense is
determined by the frames we unconsciously acquire, and one person’s common sense is
another’s evil political ideology. The truths that have been discovered about the mind
are not easy to fathom, especially when false views of the mind get in the way.

The discovery of frames requires a reevaluation of rationalism, a 350-year-old
theory of mind that arose during the Enlightenment. We say this with great admiration
for the rationalist tradition. It is rationalism, after all, that provided the foundation for
our democratic system. Rationalism says it is reason that makes us human, and all
human beings are equally rational. That is why we can govern ourselves and do not have
to rely upon a king or a pope to govern us. And since we are equally rational, the best
form of government is a democracy. So far, so good.

But rationalism also comes with several false theories of mind.
• We know from cognitive science research that most thought is unconscious, but
rationalism claims that all thought is conscious.
• We know that we think using mechanisms like frames and metaphors. Yet
rationalism claims that all thought is literal, that it can directly fit the world;
this rules out any effects of framing, metaphors, and worldviews.
• We know that people with different worldviews think differently and may reach
completely different conclusions given the same facts. But rationalism claims
that we all have the same universal reason. Some aspects of reason are
universal, but many others are not—they differ from person to person based
on their worldview and deep frames.
• We know that people reason using the logic of frames and metaphors, which
falls outside of classical logic. But rationalism assumes that thought is logical
and fits classical logic.

If you believed in rationalism, you would believe that the facts will set you free, that
you just need to give people hard information, independent of any framing, and they
will reason their way to the right conclusion. We know this is false, that if the facts
don’t fit the frames people have, they will keep the frames (which are, after all,
physically in their brains) and ignore, forget, or explain away the facts. The facts must
be framed in a way to make sense in order to be accepted as a basis for further reasoning.

If you were a rationalist policy maker, you would believe that frames, metaphors,
and moral worldviews played no role in characterizing problems or solutions to
problems. You would believe that all problems and solutions were objective and in no
way worldview dependent. You would believe that solutions were rational, and that the
tools to be used in arriving at them included classical logic, probability theory, game
theory, cost-benefit analysis, and other aspects of the theory of rational action.

Rationalism pervades the progressive world. It is one of the reasons progressives
have lately been losing to conservatives.

Rationalist-based political campaigns miss the symbolic, metaphorical, moral,
emotional, and frame-based aspects of political campaigns. Real rationality recognizes
these politically crucial aspects of our mental life. We advocate getting real about
rationality itself, recognizing how it really works. If you think political campaigns are
about laundry lists of policies that have no further symbolic value, then you miss the
heart of American politics. [End of excerpt]

I’m aware that this will probably lead to further misconceptions (“Are you saying we should just be irrational?”, etc). Such is the way with new “paradigms” (I’m not keen on this word, but how else to highlight that this isn’t just a new surface gloss?). It takes a while for the non-familiar to sink in. But, one step at a time…

Written by NewsFrames

July 9, 2012 at 8:49 am

The new “unconscious” (part 2)

The new "unconscious"Sept 7, 2011 – Today’s ‘i’ headline (on 3 separate stories – hacking, MPs’ expenses, policing) consists of an abstraction and a metaphor. But it points to a “reality” of sorts – courtesy of frames in our brains.

“All of our knowledge and beliefs are framed in terms of a conceptual system that resides mostly in the cognitive unconscious”.

This quote is from a book on cognitive science which I’ll be making much use of: Philosophy in the Flesh, by Lakoff & Johnson. Much of it doesn’t seem new, as it uses familiar words: “unconscious”, “frame”, etc. But don’t be fooled by the familiarity.

From the Western philosophical tradition, we’ve inherited a “faculty” theory of reason, which holds that reason is a separate faculty in its own right – separate from sense-perception, etc. This is supposedly what makes us “human”. Cognitive science has shown this to be false. To give one example, our fundamental concept of causality is shaped – shaped – by the fact we have muscles which we use to exert force.

We don’t, and can’t, have full control of the categories we use in our reasoning. Although we learn new categories, we can’t consciously make major changes to the main category systems forming our “cognitive unconscious”. Much of what we regard as conceptual inference is built from basic metaphors arising from sensorimotor inference (eg the stuff that goes on in our nervous systems as we swing through the trees looking for bananas).

Yeah, but what does this have to do with the malign nonsense written by Daily Mail assholes?

Patience – we’re not in Kansas any more…

To be continued…

Written by NewsFrames

September 7, 2011 at 10:19 am

The new “unconscious” (part 1)

The "new" unconsciousSept 1, 2011 – Today’s Mail headline will provoke diverse reactions: indifference, confusion, curiosity, anger, guffaws, etc. The word “anarchists” alone denotes a highly “contested” concept, leading to different responses.

Cognitive science uses the term “cognitive” to refer to all the mental operations involved in such responses.* It holds that the vast majority of these are “unconscious”. This isn’t the Freudian or Jungian “unconscious” – it’s something new in scientific terms (starting around the 1970s). It owes more to empirical research than to sexual/poetic insights (of Freud, Jung etc).

The “cognitive unconscious” has huge implications for philosophy and psychology. And also for “media studies”. One such implication is that it’s not all about “intelligence”. A common (but ignorant) criticism regarding “framing” analysis is that it assumes people are “stupid”, susceptible to “spin”, that they can’t think for themselves, etc. This criticism typically comes from tabloid newspaper editors when confronted with the charge that their headlines induce fear and hatred.

Cognitive science tells us that these reactions of fear and hatred have little to do with the relative stupidity/intelligence of readers. In fact, a high IQ is no defense against having such reactions, since the cognitive processes which underlie them are mostly unconscious. What’s required as a defense is knowledge of these processes, which comes from empirical research. That’s what the field of “frame semantics” is about.

Of course, there are a lot of stupid people around, but that’s a different topic…

* This is a different usage of “cognitive” than in traditional philosophical discourse, where it refers only to conceptual or propositional thought. In cognitive science, “cognitive” may even include physical, bodily processes which underlie our conscious experience.

Written by NewsFrames

September 1, 2011 at 8:54 am