Don’t Think of An Elephant: Why Republicans Win the Frame Battle

don't think of an elephant book cover

Don’t Think of An Elephant (2004) analyzes how political framing can be used to sway and manipulate public opinion, determine voting patterns, and even change people’s political orientation.
George Lakoff, the author, says that conservatives are winning the framing war in American politics.

About the Author

George Lakoff is a cognitive scientist and linguist, and former Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley.
He is also active on his own blog, and does not hide that he is a fervent Democrat and political activist.

1. We See The World Through Frames

Lakoff says that frames are “mental structures that shape the way we see the world”.

Frames sit deep in our mind, but can be activated unconsciously by catch-phrases, references and simple words.

Frame Activation

When a frame is already in place, it can be activated through words. Such as, when you hear a certain word, a frame connected to that word in your brain is activated. 

This is important because even when you negate a frame, that frame still gets activated.
That means that when you argue against an opponent using their language and words, you activate their frames. 

Thus, when you criticize your opponent with their words, you are reinforcing their messages.

Moral of the story: you must develop your own frames and say what you want to say with your own words.

2. Frames Can Change Personalities

If a moderate person who is partly conservative hears conservative arguments and messages over and over again, he will grow more conservative-leaning synapses.

And, over time, he will also become more conservative.

3. Frames Need to Be In People’s Minds Before You Can Activate Them

It is possible to activate frames by words, BUT a frame must pre-exist for you to be able to do that.

That means that framing isn’t simply coming up with fancy names.

To activate a frame, there should be a frame first.

Sounds like a chicken and egg thing, right?
So the question becomes:

How do you create a frame that you can later active with a simple keyword?

Well, one way of creating a frame is by repeating a message over and over until it becomes ingrained in our brains.

As George Lakoff says:

Reframing is more a matter of accessing what we already believe unconsciously, making it conscious, and repeating it till it enters normal public discourse.
It doesn’t happen overnight.

Why?

Because long-term concepts are instantiated in our brain and do not change overnight or by simply being told “facts”.

4. Facts Only Matter if Morally Framed

Facts do matter, but only if framed in terms of their moral importance.

This is because if the facts don’t fit the moral frames you have in your brain, then you will reject them (challenge them, ignore them or belittle them).

For facts to make sense, they need to fit with the synapses already connected in our brains.

Catchy Words Won’t Go Far Without Frames

When there is no frame, you can’t communicate effectively with a couple of catchy words.

So for example, the Republicans can activate frames with “tax-relief”, because they worked for years on establishing the underlying frames that taxes are a burden, and cutting taxes is means freedom and personal empowerment.

But if you were to come up with a new catchy expression such as “altruistic-taxation” to express the positive aspects of taxation, you wouldn’t go far because there are no frames linked to the altruistic aspects of redistributing wealth.

The lack of an underlying frame is called “hypocognition”.

As Lakoff says:

Slogans can’t overcome hypocognition. Only sustained public discussion has a chance. 

5. Liberals & Conservatives Have Two Different Moral Systems

Lakoff says there are two different moral systems in politics, each underpinning Democratic or Conservative parties.

Conservative moral system

The conservative moral system is based on the strict father who needs to impose discipline and order on the children -and on the world around

  • See evil and good as separated
  • The strict father who has to make sure that “good” wins
  • Rich people obey the strict father rules and deserve to be rich
  • Poor people don’t obey the rules, are amoral and deserve to be poor
  • Never depending on others
  • Taxes and redistribution are wrong because they give services to the amoral poor people

Incidentally, charity for the “deserving” few costs a lot less than taxes to provide resources for the benefit of all. 

George Lakoff

Liberal moral system

The liberal moral system is based on a nurturing parent. 

  • Children are born good and can be made even better
  • Both parents are seen as equal as sharing in the task of child-rearing
  • Empathy for others
  • People are also responsible for others and for the community

Systems’ Overlap

Most people are not 100% in a system but operate different systems in different areas of their lives (“biconceptualism”).

The two systems can operate in the same person thanks to two mechanisms;

  1. Inhibition (when one system is running the other is switched off)
  2. Different neural bindings (the systems simply apply to different political issues)

It’s with these people that framing and wedge issues work best: because they are the ones that can more easily switch between liberal and conservative.

6. People Don’t Vote With Self-Interest in Mind

George Lakoff draws a parallel between behavioral economics, with the work of authors such as Tversky and Kanehmann, and people’s voting pattern.

Same as people don’t always make the most rational economic decisions, they also don’t vote for the party that best represents their interest.
Lakoff says that people vote their identity.

Lakoff implies that it can be easily proven by the Republicans’ ability to cut tax for the ultra-wealthy, which only burdened the poorer class.

My Note: A bit lacking here
However, the author doesn’t take into account that some people might vote Republicans in spite of the tax cuts for the wealthy.
For example, some people might prefer better border control even though that means tax cuts for the wealthy.
However, I do agree with Lakoff.

7. Frames Examples: Tax Relief & Permission Slip

These are two examples of framing I loved from “Don’t Think of An Elephant!”:

  • Tax Relief framing

George W. Bush introduced the expression “tax relief”.

It was a genius move to make the middle class and poor people feel like they were getting something out of it.
“Relief” felt like it was a political move to unburden the people, to help them fly higher and be freer.

  • Permission slip

Bush said America wasn’t going to need any “permission slip” to “defend itself”.

He was leveraging the strict father worldview of the conservative framing and framing the interaction between nations as if between people.
It’s children who need a permission slip, and America was no child. America was the adult (also read “I’m OK You’re OK” for more on the parent-child role).

To see a real-life example of conservative framing, see:

8. Orwellian Language Is Manipulative Language

Orwellian language is the framing of a negative policy with its opposite.

For example, the conservative “Healthy Forests Initiative” is an Orwellian frame because it’s about cutting trees.

Promoting the name “climate change” instead of “global warming” is also an Orwellian frame, in Lakoff’s point of view (but I disagree there).

9. This Is The Ultimate Republican Manipulation

George Lakoff says that:

  • Republicans want policies for the wealthy

BUT, the top 1% are, well, just 1%. So to enact thoes policies:

  • Republicans they need the vote of the non-wealthy

To do so, they managed a great trick: to paint Democrats as elitists out of touch with reality (“limousine liberals”, “liberal elite”, “tax-and-spend”) and the Conservatives as rational and populists (Reagan’s cowboy image, George Bush’s Bushisms, and realistic budget accounting).

In short:

The greatest Republican manipulation was to frame Democrats as elitists, and Conservatives as down-to-earth realists who represent the average Joes.

I think Lakoff makes a great point indeed.

Real-Life Applications

  • Don’t use the word you want to avoid people thinking

Don’t write “don’t hesitate to contact me”, because the word “hesitate” will make people hesitant.
George Lakoff says that when Nixon said “I’m not a crook”, everyone immediately thought he was a crook.

“I am not a crook”, and everyone started thinking he might have been a crook.

  • Avoid negative forms

If you find yourself using too many negative forms, it might be the case that you haven’t developed a strong form of discourse that you can reference.

  • Stay away from set-ups

I have written extensively here on people who showed up into shows that were designed to ridicule, shame them or generally make them look like idiots (see Julien on CNN, Tucker Carlson and Neil Strauss on The View).

So I couldn’t agree more when Lakoff says to stay away from set-ups or, at least, to prepare well and always reframe (instead of simply replying to pre-frame questions).

Criticism

Albeit I fully enjoyed “Don’t Think of An Elephant!”, there is also something I am skeptical about.
Including:

1. Correlation Is Not Causation

Sometimes I felt like the author seems to over-connect political victories to frames.

I felt reading “Don’t Think of An Elephant” that the author falls for the all-too-human bias of seeing patterns where there might just be randomness (also read “Fooled by Randomness“).

2. Not Convinced On Republican Superiority 

A central theme of “Don’t Think of An Elephant” is that Republicans are winning the framing war.

And, it’s implied, that the framing advantage they have allows them to do politically better than Democrats.

Lakoff says that it all started in the 1950s, when Republicans “hated each other”.

But then they got together and studied how to frame issues and how to win the framing battle.

Since then, they spent much money on think-thanks, and from the 1960s they gained the upper hand against fragmented and clueless Democrats.

The theory sounds interesting, but I feel it might be uncorroborated in the numbers.
I checked on Wikipedia and since 1960 to 2021 there have been 6 Democratic presidents to 6 Republicans (and 8 terms VS 8).
And that tally includes 2 Republican presidents who won by a whisker (Bush and Donald Trump, with Trump actually losing the popular vote).

3. Disagree On “Making Science More Persuasive”

Lakoff discusses a scientific paper on climate change.

And he criticizes it for using “scientific weasel words”.
The “scientific weasel words” would be:

High degree of confidence, anomalies, consequence, likelihood, absence, and exceedingly small.  

Instead, Lakoff wanted the scientific paper to make bolder statements to confirm that yes, climate change is real.

But science isn’t about convincing people, it’s about presenting finding and data!
I can’t lie: in that paragraph, I lost some of my faith in Lakoff as a super-partes analyst of reality.

Little later, Lakoff shows the type of language he prefers:

  • “We cannot merely adapt to it”
  • “The costs are incalculable”
  • “What we are facing is huge”
  • “Each day, the amount of extra energy accumulating via the heating of the earth is the equivalent of 400,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs.
    Each day!

Lakoff also misses the power dynamics of the scientific establishment: any using any of the above sentences would quickly lose status and credibility within scientific circles -and righteously so-.

4. Mirror-Neurons Need Updates

The author says that mirror neurons are the reason why we can feel what others are feeling.

And says that psychopaths can sense what others are feeling, not be affected by it, and then use it to manipulate them -which is sometimes true-.

But mirror neurons in humans have been difficult to find and study, let alone link them to psychopathologies as Lakoff does (also read “Replication Crisis” and “Pop-Psychology Myths“).

5. Partisan (But Honest About It)

George Lakoff is a Democratic political activist, so don’t expect a neutral author.

He is honest and forthcoming about it, and I respect that.

Still, sometimes I disagreed with some fundamental ways of looking at the world.
For example, Lakoff repeats that “the private depends on the public”, and I don’t fully agree.
Both the private and the public enable each other.
Not seeing the codependence, in my opinion, can lead to a distorted view of political analysis.

6. Possible Misunderstanding of Piketty’s Work

The author bases much of his tirade on resources distribution on Piketty’s work.

Nassim Taleb in “Skin In The Game” says that Piketty got it all wrong.

I don’t know enough here to judge, but considering Taleb’s background in math and statistics, I’d go with Taleb here.

That being said, I do actually agree with Lakoff when it comes to the general principle.

7. Overestimates Religion’s Influence on Actual Social Mores

The author says that “religion like Catholicism and Islam promote population growth”.

Albeit that’s not fully wrong if you read what those religions say, it also flies in the face of what we know about sociology -and, as well, actual data-.

Catholic and rich countries are not making more children when they become rich and wealthy, thus showing that religion and natality are not tightly interlinked.
And a Catholic country like Italy is facing a huge natality crisis again proves that religion’s power to influence people on whether or not to make children is very limited at best.

8. Some Unsubstantiated Statements

There are some statements that the author presents as truths but that are not referenced and that left me scratching my head.

For example:

When the very rich get exponentially richer and everyone else exponentially loses access to wealth, there is an inevitable pressure for short-term profits

“Exponentially” is a mathematical property that does cannot apply to wealth distribution, since one cannot go below zero.
And based on what there is an “inevitable pressure” for short term profits?

9. Some Arguments Didn’t Convince Me

The author wants to make a point that Republican’s focus on security and securing the borders -and the world- is misplaced.

So he writes:

Most security experts say that there is no sure way to keep terrorists out or to deny them the use of some weapon or other; a determined, well-financed terrorist organization can penetrate any security system

What’s that supposed to mean, then?
That one should not invest in security systems?

That is a poor argument because security is not binary, either working 100% or failing 100%. It’s the “in-between” that security covers, and eliminating 98% of the threats is much better than doing nothing.
Furthermore, good security also discourages criminals, so you get fewer attempts to begin with.

don't think of an elephant book cover

PROS

  • TOP analysis on framing

One of the best analysis of framing I have ever read.
Also read “techniques to outframe anyone” and “basics of framing“.

  • Great analysis of moral systems

Very interesting analysis of the different moral systems of Democrats and Republicans.

It’s uncanny how Lakoff seems to well describe some conservative thought leaders who emerged after -it made me think of Jordan Peterson and his obstinacy on good and evil-.

  • Genius analysis of how Bush frame the Iraq war after 09.11

Some great analysis on how the Bush administration framed the war in Iraq and how it managed to get everyone’s approval for it.

The war benefitted big corporations but thanks to the tax cuts, the war was all financed by the poor and by the middle class.

Review

“Don’t Think of An Elephant!” is a classic.

It’s one of the best books I read, making into bot the “best persuasion books” and “best manipulation books” lists.

Keep in mind that it’s very partisan and it presents some partisan generalizations and unsubstantiated statements.
Luckily, the author does not hide and is very open about his political views, which I appreciate and respect a lot.

And his analysis on framing is really good, so I can say that George Lakoff won me over with the depth of his analysis.

This is a must-read for anyone interested in psychology, influence & persuasion as well as political manipulation.

Check the:

Or get the book on Amazon

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