The Brain's Politics: How Campaigns Are Framed and Why


Tuesday, September 11, 2012
5-6:30 PM
Bartos Theater, MIT Media Lab


Everything we learn, know and understand is physical — a matter of brain circuitry. This basic fact has deep implications for how politics is understood, how campaigns are framed,  why conservatives and progressives talk past each other, and why progressives have more problems framing messages than conservatives do — and what they can do about it.


George Lakoff is Richard and Rhoda Goldman Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley, where he has taught since 1972. He graduated from MIT in 1962 with degrees in mathematics and literature.

Moderator: Heather Hendershot is professor of film and media and director of the graduate program in Comparative Media Studies (CMS) at MIT. She is editor of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies' Cinema Journal.

Opening Remarks: D. Fox Harrell directs the Imagination, Computation and Expression Laboratory (ICE Lab) at MIT.

Sponsor: Imagination, Computation and Expression Laboratory (ICE Lab).


Video of The Brain's Politics: How Campaigns Are Framed and Why is available.


A downloadable podcast of The Brain's Politics is available.


Streaming audio of The Brain's Politics is available.


[This is an edited summary, not a verbatim trancsript.]

By Katie Edgerton, CMS

George Lakoff, Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley, began his talk by recounting the genesis of his theory of metaphor.

George Lakoff

"It was the early 1970s, and I was teaching an undergraduate seminar on linguistics," said Lakoff. "One of my students walked into class, ten minutes late, drenched and in tears. She said, 'I have a metaphor problem with my boyfriend.’ This being Berkeley in the 1970s, we became her instant support group."

Lakoff and his class listened as the young woman recounted her boyfriend's complaints. "He said our relationship hit a dead end street," she told the class. "I don't know what he meant."

"Dead end," Lakoff realized, was a travel metaphor. With the help of his class, he began to list romance clichés – love in the fast lane, relationship on the rocks, the wheels are spinning, and so on. Each used travel imagery, presenting love as a journey. The lovers were travelers, their relationship was a vehicle, and they were trying to reach a common destination. Relationship difficulties become impediments to travel.

When Lakoff shared his observation with the class, his student told that him she didn’t care. “My boyfriend is thinking in terms of this metaphor,” she said. “He's going to break up with me."

“How can a person think in terms of metaphor?” Lakoff wondered.

Metaphors, Lakoff realized, were cognitive processes. People use metaphors to map experience from one domain onto another. His theory went against nearly 2,000 years of philosophical thought, which located metaphors in the world, not the human brain.

“Metaphor is a natural mode of thought,” Lakoff said. Central to our technical and everyday reasoning, “it arises spontaneously and shapes how we think, reason, and understand the world.”

As he began to dig further, Lakoff realized that metaphors were inspired by “everyday embodied experience.” Why do people think of love as a journey? "Every day in your life, there's a correlation between achieving a purpose and reaching a destination," he said.
Like ‘love is a journey,’ most metaphors arise from embodied experience. For example, many people associate affection with warmth, Lakoff said. Why is that the case?

The answer, Lakoff asserted, lay in neural development. When parents hold a child affectionately, he feels their bodily warmth. Two parts of the child’s brain are activated - one for warmth, and one for affection. "Neurons that fire together, wire together,” Lakoff said. The child’s brain forms a circuit—associating warmth and affection.

Lakoff said this theory of metaphor runs counter to the conventional wisdom of Western philosophy, notably the theories of rational thought developed and popularized during the European Enlightenment (c. 1650-1790). Enlightenment philosopher Rene Descartes famously asserted that human thought was abstract, not physical, and that emotion and reason were opposed.

According to Lakoff, Descartes was “wrong.” because is an integral part of cognitive development and decision-making. Furthermore, all thought is “physical,” determined by prewired pathways in the brain.  “You can only understand what your neural circuitry allows you to understand,” Lakoff said.

This perspective has profound implications for morality, he said, arguing that moral concepts are metaphorical, but morality is ultimately rooted in physical well-being and ill-being—experiences that register in the brain. We learn our moral systems as children, via embodied metaphor. For instance, we associate morality with purity (fresh food), and immorality with rottenness (spoiled food).

Lakoff extended his theory of metaphor and morality to explain the current polarization in American political thought. “I was always confused,” he said, “how conservatives could support the death penalty and be against abortion.”  The answer, Lakoff contended, lay in conservatives’ understanding of the metaphors for morality.

Conservatives, Lakoff said, believed in a “strict father family.”  The “father,” in this formulation, could be a church, a team, a nation, or even the stock market—as long as he represented the ultimate authority. Punishment is morally required of the “father” authority-figure. In this formulation, morality requires discipline. If you are undisciplined, you cannot be moral. The “best people,” in the “strict father” worldview, were disciplined, worked hard, and made the most money.

Progressives, according to Lakoff, subscribed to a “nurturing parent” view of the family. Parents shared responsibility, and empathized with their children. Authority figures realize that they are responsible for their dependents, and try their hardest to do what is right.

Lakoff's moral concepts

Lakoff argued that these oppositional metaphors of the family shape policy differences between liberals and conservatives. In the progressive worldview, it is the role of government to empower and protect all citizens equally, much in the same way as a nurturing parent. Progressives believe that democracy requires a robust public sphere. Therefore, they believe that the government should provide a robust suite of social programs that empower and inform the public.

In the conservative paradigm, democracy is based on a single moral principle—the freedom of citizens to seek their own interest regardless of the interest of others. Those who succeed have the discipline to excel, and those who do not prosper “do not deserve to.” This principle imposes a moral hierarchy on political and economic power structures. The role of the government is to act as a “strict father,” and enforce rules when they are broken.

Accordingly, conservatives see progressive social programs as unnecessary. Lakoff presented his “strict father” theory as an explanation for conservative budgetary proposals—like that of Republican Vice Presidential Candidate Paul Ryan—that call for drastic cuts to government-funded social programs. As conservatives defund public provisions, they destroy them, Lakoff said. For progressives—who see the government as a nurturing parent that empowers citizens—this means destroying the “moral basis of democracy.”

Audience Discussion

An audience member observed that Lakoff’s theory implied that conservatives and progressives had diametrically opposed views of the world. How might progressives begin to open a meaningful dialogue with conservatives, given this deep-rooted opposition?

Conservatism, said Lakoff, has a great deal of "in-group" progressivism. “There’s a large degree of in-group nurturance,” he asserted. “You can see this in the army, in particular.” For insiders, the army is almost like “a socialist collective.” Lakoff observed that when Michelle Obama and Jill Biden spoke about helping veteran's families at the 2012 Democratic National Convention, they evoked progressive nurturance in a discussion of the military. Lakoff thought this was a brilliant rhetorical strategy. “Biden and Obama were evoking their moral system in a discussion about the military,” he said, which is an institution usually associated with conservatives.

Heather Hendershot, Professor of Comparative Media Studies, asked Lakoff how he accounted for diversity among American Conservatives. For example, libertarians often disagreed with the Christian right. Many libertarians would not want the government to legislate abortion or same-sex marriage—key issues for the religious right wing. How did Lakoff’s theory account for different “strains” of conservative political belief?

“The strict father” metaphor gives birth to a complex moral system, Lakoff said. Some parts of the paradigm were stressed by particular conservative groups, while other groups emphasized different dimensions. Many conservatives see the “strict father” figure in the free market, Lakoff said. Conservative Christians, by contrast, believe that God is the ultimate authority. For libertarians, he said, democracy is about becoming your own “strict father.” In libertarianism, the individual becomes his own ultimate authority.

An audience member noted that Lakoff grounded his theory of metaphors in embodied experience. Was there a similar body-centric narrative in his explanation of American political thought?

Lakoff said embodiment was implicit in the metaphors for morality that provided the basis of progressive and conservative political paradigms.  Conservatives, according to Lakoff, believed a child was better off if he obeyed his parents. Liberals, in Lakoff’s view, bought into a “nurturing” parent model. The experience-rooted understanding of metaphor was present in these conceptions of childrearing and morality, although not in as obvious a form as his earlier theories of metaphor.

An audience member asked why the military seemed to be the sole exception to conservatives’ antipathy to funding public programs.  If conservatives want everything else to be private, she said, why not support a privately funded army?  

Force, Lakoff said, is important for the strict father to maintain his authority. In order to lead, “he must punish.” Conservatives believed that America should be the strict father in the world, Lakoff said. Additionally, when government supports the military, it also funds the military industrial complex – which is comprised of private corporations.  

Barack Obama is trying to adopt the mantle of warrior president, observed an audience member. He noted how often Obama mentioned the death of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden during the Democratic National Convention. Is that an effective strategy for Obama?

There are two kinds of narratives in American political discourse, said Lakoff. One is the hero-villain narrative. Obama can present himself as the hero who killed Osama bin Laden and saved General Motors. Another resonant narrative is rags-to-riches, which Obama has “tied up.” Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, on the other hand, comes from a wealthy family, and has trouble presenting himself as a self-made man.  

Democratic delegates in the convention hall didn’t agree with all of Obama’s policies, Lakoff noted, yet they cheered him when he touched on rags-to-riches or hero-villain themes, because they’re powerful narratives in our culture.