Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Scientists Discover That Hidden Persuaders Are Real

In yesterday's post I mentioned reading George Lakoff's book, The Political Mind. While I agree with the politics of the book in almost every instance, I was still disappointed. For one thing, the book "compresses well." (IOW it contains a lot of repetition. A Lot.) It also felt a bit like a classic bait-and-switch: the back flap touts "the science behind how our brains understand politics" but the contents are 90% political rhetoric, and I'm still in doubt about the science.

The author's premise is attractive enough as far as it goes: our brains don't make perfectly rational decisions, but are influenced by "framing"; and the Republicans have used this to their advantage while the Democrats with their belief in "pure reason" have not properly defended themselves by accepting the conservative framing (for example: "tax relief").

Well, there may be some recent scientific research that confirms that most people are not so good at rational decision making, but honestly, I thought that the importance of framing has been well known for a long time to all politicians -- and advertisers as well. As far as the recent scientific proof for this commonly-known fact, Jonah Lehrer's book "How We Decide" contains at least as much about the research, and the non-scientific parts of his book are better written and, I expect, more future-proof.

I'm also skeptical of the importance of Lakoff's discovery that frames are represented physically in the brain. That's about as insightful as saying that this blog entry exists physically in Google's computers (as magnetic fluctuations on a hard drive). Has he never heard of abstractions? He seems to argue that all of philosophy needs to be thrown away because it ignores this fact. I will gladly accept that we cannot treat the brain as a perfect mathematical machine, and using the embodyment of the mind will probably eventually help us understand consciousness (more likely than abstract reasoning like Douglas Hofstadter's approach, no matter how much I enjoy his puzzles and paradoxes).

But the important message to me is still about how the brain's software works. It's useful to know that frames are reinforced by trauma and repetition, and that it requires a lot of repetition of counteracting frames to override them once they're there. And yes, that the Bush government used this to its advantage is a great example. But I wanted to know more about the science, and less about the politics.

Lakoff's other point is that human beings are born to have emphathy with each other. But he doesn't mention much of the science behind this. That's because in the end he is a linguist, and linguists spend most of their time studying (and arguing about) human language, which was the result of a long evolutionary path and cannot necessarily explain it. And his oft-repeated use of the words America and American in connection to empathy is surely his own little joke, where he's trying to make the reader believe that American values are nurturing values by applying his own theory: say it over and over and the frame will be hard-wired (whether that's literally or figuratively :-) in the reader's mind. As a non-US-citizen I wished the emphasis was on human values, not American values.

10 comments:

W. Kevin Hazzard said...

It's not in vogue these days but I'm a big fan of Gestalt psychology. I see some resemblance in the author's reasoning to the way that Reification and Pr├Ągnanz principles in Gestalt explain how perception works in the brain by preferring symmetry and closure in problem solving. These work at a higher level, too, I think. But trying to make the leap to physical representations in the brain is a bit dodgy without some deep physical science. When I teach programming languages, I employ Gestalt principles in my lesson plans with very good results. Focusing on what we Gestalt proponents call reproductive thinking leads to truly new ideas only after many, many repetitions of basic concepts that create the dotted lines upon which the laws of proximity and closure allow the brain to fill in the gaps. Very interesting. Thanks for sharing.

Tim Peters said...

Guido, I bet you'd enjoy "Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts", by Tavris and Aronson. You'll have to accept that "social science" /is/ "science" ;-), but if you can get over that hurdle it's a fascinating read.

Talin said...

Lakoff is more interesting as a linguist than he is as a philosopher. I liked his early book "Metaphors We Live By" more than his political stuff.

Gary Godfrey said...

I've recently been reading an online book called The Authoritarians. The author, a psychology professor at the University of Manitoba, has been doing studies on authoritarian personality types for quite a number of years. It fits pretty well into the U.S. red/blue divide and I see the same sort of divisions in the computer world as well. Actually, in any organization.

His studies tend to be a little small and narrow which render broad conclusions somewhat perilous. But he does blend a fair amount of hard numbers very nicely with readable text.

Regards,
Gary Godfrey
Austin, TX USA

vsg said...

Well, there may be some recent scientific research that confirms that most people are not so good at rational decision making,...

I would recommend a book called Stumbling on Happiness (by Daniel Gilbert). It is about why people are so bad in making decisions. There is also audiobook, narrated by the author.

eljunior said...

There is the Dan Ariely book "Predictably Irrational" where it describes some experiments about the irrational decisions we make, and there are also some of his papers available online (http://web.mit.edu/ariely/www/MIT/papers.shtml), that make an interesting read.

Gabriel Hasbun-Comandari said...

To really make it a science I believe that some neurology would have to been involved, and no book would have to be read, but rather a scientific paper.

One of my goals in life is to create a series of videos (now that it is the most popular media among internauts) in which I complain about what these hidden persuaders have inflicted upon humanity.

A said...

The psychological motivators in persuasion have been documented for some time. Without a doubt, the seminal (and, IMO, far and away best) book on the subject is Robert Cialdini's Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. Cialdini is a (now retired) social psychologist from Arizona State U. He finds six major motivators by which persuasion is affected by sales people, marketers, and the like. Lakoff's reference to empathy shows up in two different principles: reciprocation and likability. Cialdini doesn't dive into the neuroscience behind the motivators but shows how they work empirically with abundant references to supporting research.

Michael said...

I am currently working on my Doctoral in behavioral psychology with an emphasis on criminal theory and agree with your blog 100 percent. Our mind can not be simplified into a purely linguistic category, our mind is probably much more complex than that.
Michael Clark

Diogo Terror said...

By the way, you have to stop using 'american' to mean people from United States. America is big continent and it is not yours.