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.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Progressive vs. Conservative

[Warning: loose thoughts ahead!]

Microsoft's Eric Meijer gave a talk at Google yesterday, and afterwards I had lunch with him. One of his remarks was (I paraphrase) that Microsoft users want to be told what to do, while the Java community is more vocal or argumentative. (He didn't discuss the Python community but in my experience it falls in the latter category.)

Now, while lying sick in bed with a hacking cough, I am reading George Lakoff's "The Political Mind". This book tries to model the distinction between conservative and progressive politics on the differences between two different ideal family models: the strict father (from which most conservative moral virtues flow according to Lakoff), and the nurturing family, from which the progressive moral virtues derived.

The parallel with Microsoft users vs. Java users seems to be all too obvious: Microsoft as the strict father: If you are loyal you will be rewarded, but if you stray you will be punished; whereas in the Java (or Python) community benefits and moral goodness flow from helping each other (which includes sharing open source software, and, apparently, bikeshedding :-).

What about other companies and communities? I can't help thinking of Oracle as the ultimate strict-father company, which makes me worry about the Sun takeover. Are Linus Torvalds and Richard Stallman strict fathers?