Read our full conversation with George Lakoff on "your brain on Trump"

Apr 18, 2017

In a recent episode of Make Me Smart, Kai Ryssdal and Molly Wood interviewed George Lakoff, emeritus professor of cognitive science and linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley. In 1996, he wrote an influential book called "Moral Politics," which describes the science behind how liberals and conservatives think. Lakoff shares his analysis of President Trump's linguistic style and the effect it can have on your brain. An edited version of their conversation is below.

Molly Wood: Professor Lakoff, we are so happy to have you here.

George Lakoff: My pleasure.

Wood: Tell us for people who don't know, because we are not going to do a good job of explaining it, tell us what kind of research you do.

Lakoff: I study the mind, the brain and language. Most thought is unconscious, about 98 percent. And we have found ways of studying unconscious thought in all kinds of ways over the last 40 years. And that's what I do. I study mostly unconscious thought and its contribution to conscious thought.

Wood: And its contribution to, kind of, politics and society too, which seems extremely relevant as it happens right now.

Lakoff: That's right. I've been doing that since 1996.

Kai Ryssdal: So, and this time around, you predicted — although we should say you are no fan of Donald Trump — you predicted that he would win based on what he was saying.

Lakoff: Based on what he was saying, how he was saying it, and how he very cleverly managed to manipulate other people's brains to his advantage as a super salesman, which he's been doing for 50 years. And he instinctively knows exactly how to do that. He knows what to say, and those tweets that he gives are entirely strategic. There are four types. Each of them fits a strategy, you know, and he has an advantage when other people think that he's just crazy or stupid.

Ryssdal: So let's play some tape actually, we have tape of the president. This is not long after the election.

Trump audio: When I was young, we were always winning things in this country. We'd win with trade, we'd win with wars….

Ryssdal: He said it so much, I can almost repeat the next line. "There's going to be so much winning, you're gonna be sick and tired of winning."

Lakoff: Right exactly. Yep.

Ryssdal: And he knew what he was doing.

Lakoff: Boy, did he know what he was doing. He knew perfectly well what he was doing. First of all, there are in this country about 35 percent of Americans who have what I call a strict father morality. That is, they understand that they, in their households or whatever, they believe that father knows best, that their father is the authority, that what he says is right. That if children don't obey him, they have to be given tough love and punished until they do, and that this gives rise to a view that you have to be disciplined. That is not to do what feels good.

You've heard of feel-good liberalism? That means they don't have a strict-enough father. The main thing is that this is a natural thing that this is how the world should be how it is. And if you look at history, you will see that the strict fathers win. And you can take a look at who wins, and they win because they're right. That morality and authority go together, that the strict father knows right from wrong. So that if you want to see who's better than who, you look at who beat who. And so you have religion won out, you have God above man and you have, we have conquered nature, you have man above nature. We can take anything we want for our use. You have the strong above the weak. We need a strong army, and so on. You have the rich above the poor, who deserve it, because they're disciplined. The employers above employees, because they're richer. The adults above children in 21 states. Teachers and coaches can beat children with sticks if they don't just obey them and if they ever talk back. You have Western culture above non-Western culture. We won out. You have America above other countries, men above women, whites above non-whites, Christians above non-Christians, straights above gays. That hierarchy follows from one idea, not a bunch of different ideas. It's strict father morality as applied to all aspects of life.

That is what Trump not only believes, he hacks and he assumes is correct. And he knows that about 35 percent of the country — the 35 percent who still support him — that, you know, who also believe this, even if they're poor. And it doesn't matter, this just a matter of material resources. The main thing is that if that is your worldview and that's your morality, that defines who you are as a person. It's self-definition, and people don't vote against their self-definition. Not only that, it doesn't matter if Trump lies to them, and they know he's lying, because there's a higher truth, which is strict father morality itself, which has consequences and that they are truer than any lies. And that if you deny that, if you accept the lies as more important, you're denying your self-identity. That is why there are alternative facts.

Ryssdal: OK, well yeah, but here's ... oh, my goodness, so many questions.

Wood: I know. I have 10 to 100 questions as follow ups.

Ryssdal: So here comes just one. All this pointing out of lies and alternative facts and all of this that the media is doing. Spinning our wheels to no effect, is that what you're saying?

Lakoff: To no effect with the 35 percent.

Wood: Well and it almost — some of your research seems to argue not only to no effect but to counter effect.

Lakoff: Yes.

Wood: Right? That by repeating the language, you strengthen the language, which seems, you know, to be very much a principle of propaganda.

Lakoff: That's exactly right. If you repeat what he says and then say the facts go against, it you're helping him. And it's basically has to do with negation. If you believe that thought is logic, then negation should just negate and wipe out what is said. But that's not how the brain works. In order to negate something in the brain, you have to activate it first. Then you can negate it. But when you activate it neurally, you're strengthening the neural circuitry that is being used. Every time you negate something, you help the other guy by strengthening that neural circuitry and making it stronger in other people's brains.

Wood: Which is why, like, the "Just Say No" campaign didn't work, right?

Lakoff: Exactly.

Wood: It didn't work, it can't possibly work. Nixon said, "I am not a crook." You thought of him as a crook. I wrote a book called, "Don't think of an elephant," what do you think of?

Wood: The Michelin Man!

Ryssdal: Whoever, if whoever's running against Donald Trump in 2020 calls you up and says, "Professor Lakoff, George. What do I do against this guy who has this insight into the American political mindset? What do I do?

Lakoff: What you do is the following. First you have to understand your own moral views. There is what is called nurturant morality. That is, you care about other people in a family. Adults care about their children, you know, are honest with them. They try to talk directly with them and they have an answer to all their questions. They take care of them, they want them to be fulfilled in life and they want them to care about other people. And that comes out as a progressive moral view, which goes like this: that citizens care about other citizens, work through the government to provide resources, public resources for everybody starting with business. You can't have a business if you don't have streets and roads and airports and sewers and, you know, science like computer science developed by the NSF and so on. All the current technology was developed and maintained by the government. And that isn't the government, it's the people, it's the public. The private depends on the public. And that's something that Republicans don't want to understand, that if you have strict father morality, then you did it all. It's personal responsibility. But the fact is that you didn't do it all, that you got a lot of it from the public.

Wood: So in "Moral Politics" you sort of laid out this idea of the strict father morality and the nurturing…

Lakoff: Parent.

Wood: Parent, and have argued that conservatives have been winning on that. Is that — this is sort of loaded — but is it successful because we are fundamentally a patriarchy? Is that something about our society that lets us embrace that more? Or is it sort of a human, like do you think that that is a human difference?

Lakoff: First of all, the difference is always going to be there. And it's going to be there because of what children naturally experience from birth. That is, they're better off if they're nurtured, on the one hand, and they're better off if they listen to their parents on the other. And the first gives rise to nurturant parent morality, and the nurturant way of raising children, the second to a strict father way of raising children. They're always going to be there. So that happens. These can change because of experiences in life and peer pressure and things like that. But a big change has to do with language, and the conservatives figured out a long time ago that they could use language to activate their ideas. Every word activates what is called a frame, which activates in politics a moral system in your brain.

And one of the major things you have to know is that people are not just all one or the other. Most people are what I call bi-conceptual. Most conservatives have some progressive views about some things or other, most progressives have some conservative things about some things or other, perhaps business or whatever. And there are people who are both. In the brain, that means you have both moral systems mainly used for one thing but not the other. But they are what are called "mutually inhibitive." That is, the activation of one turns off the other. And what you want to do is turn on, you know, the minor view in the other person. Well, the conservatives figured out how to do this a long time ago. They set up the Leadership Institute back in 1994 to train leaders to — who want to be conservative leaders in their communities — to think and talk conservative and then to get, you know, talking points every day and to be booked on radio and TV and so on. They trained 160,000 of them by 2014 all over the country. They've been out there using those skills for many, many years.

Ryssdal: So the question then is, "what the heck is the matter with the Democrats?" And where do Obama, a two-term elected Democratic president, at which he had his own things going on. But let's go back to Bill Clinton, a two-term elected Democratic president. How were they different?

Lakoff: Well, they were different in a number of ways, but first let's talk about the Democrats. What the Democrats, the Democrats largely had a problem, which is they went to college.

Ryssdal: Oh, man.

Lakoff: I'm serious.

Ryssdal: Yeah, no, I get it.

Lakoff: If you're a conservative and you go to college, what are you going to study? Most likely you're going to take some business courses, which means you're going to be taking a marketing course. And marketing professor study my field, cognitive science. They study that people think in terms of frames, metaphors, narratives, emotions, images and so on. And so it's natural to be able to market your ideas if you're a conservative. But you don't take those courses if you're a progressive and you're interested in politics. You know, you don't take cognitive science or neuroscience or marketing. What you do is you take political science, law, public policy, economic theory, not business, and you learn a different way of thinking. It's called Enlightenment Reason from 1650 in Descartes. You learn that thought is all conscious, "I think, therefore I am." It's 98 percent unconscious. When you learn that thought is logic, Descartes was a mathematician, he says, "Ideas are like, you know, a line in a proof." Well, they're not. You think in terms of these other things, namely metaphors and frames and so on. And now Descartes said that thought was not physical. He said if it was physical, then laws of nature would, you know, keep you from having utterly free will from being to consider anything at all.

Well, it is physical. You use your brain. Ideas don't float in the air. It's physical. You use neural circuitry, and you don't have free will. And one of the remarkable things about that, I'm now finishing a book with a colleague on what we call the "neural mind," the way this works is quite remarkable. Once you get a worldview, which is a lot of ideas that are in very complex circuits in your brain, and they become fixed, you use that worldview every day so that it's just natural. It's there, it's automatic, it's instantaneous, it's just present all the time. That becomes what I'll call a "neural filter." So if — you can only understand what your brain allows you to understand. So a fact comes in. What happens if it doesn't fit your brain? One, you might not notice it. Two, you could ignore it. Three, it can be changed in less than a 10th of a second. That's another thing we can get into.

Ryssdal: Wait, let me make sure I understood you. Facts can be changed in less than a 10th of a second? What?

Wood: So you're saying that information, much like time, is relative based on your worldview?

Lakoff: Based on your worldview, and that —

Wood: What does that mean for our fake news problem?

Lakoff: You've got a big problem.

Wood: Yeah.

Lakoff: That's why the fake news is there. That's why it works. I mean, look. Let me just give you an example of an experiment. Very, very simple one that has nothing to do with ideas directly. You know that when lights flash and they go one after another, you see them as if they were moving, as if there was one moving light. Well, the same thing works with touch. They've set up an experiment where they have a little machine on your arm that touches you in one spot then right next to it, right next to it, et cetera, really fast, and it feels like somebody is moving along, moving their finger along your arm. Then they train it so they get the computer to touch you first in one spot, then underneath it, then go to the third spot and all the way down. What do you feel? You do not feel the one that's underneath, you feel it as if it were in second position. Your brain changes it to fit the pattern. Now that takes 80 milliseconds. That is about a 10th of a second or less, and what that means — and you can't perceive a 10th of a second. That's faster than anything you can perceive. So you can't even perceive that something's been changed. Now, this also works with information, which is basically working in the same way.

Wood: And one of the things that you point out in some of your research is that we will not just change information, but reject it. We may hear, because one thing we often counsel people in trying to fight fake news or fight propaganda or misinformation is to have an awareness, expose themselves to the other side. But your research seems to argue that that is totally ineffective, that by exposing them to the side they'll just reject it.

Lakoff: Not necessarily. I mean —

Wood: Phew! There's some hope.

Lakoff: Well, there is hope and it's very, and that's very important to know, but it takes effort. That is, you know, "OK, I listen to Trump, I listen to all of those guys" and I have to effortly, you know, effortfully, just say, "Hey, this ain't true, this ain't true," go on and on. You know? And I know that, I know what's coming. I have to set up in advance. I know what to expect from them, so I can use my expectations of what's not going to be true to do that. And therefore, it's very important to understand how they are thinking, what they're about. You have to understand the other person, and it's a form of empathy. Not — empathy is not necessarily being sympathetic to someone else, but it has to do with really putting yourself in their shoes so you know what they're doing and what they could be doing to you.

Ryssdal: What, then — and you're critical actually of how the media is covering Mr. Trump, and the words we are using. So, what are we to do when our job is, in theory, to inform rather than persuade?

Lakoff: Excellent. What you do is, first of all, understand he's probably trying to get away from anything important you're saying that's true. So say your important truths first. Always preempt with the truth. Frame first with the truth and with what is important. Next, if he he's saying, if he has a diversion about something unimportant, he's attacking Meryl Streep or something, you again point out that there is a diversion, and you start talking about whatever is true there about it. Then if he has a tweet, and these tweets are all strategic to divert your attention from other things, or to do preemptive —

Ryssdal: That's what I've been saying, that's what I been saying! Sorry, that's what I've been saying on Twitter for a year and a half.

Wood: Kai's obsession.

Lakoff: By the way, you are absolutely right. I have a little diagram for you, Molly has it, you know, that goes through the four types of tweets and it shows you exactly exactly what you've been saying. You're absolutely right. There are four types. One is you, there's a preemptive framing. Second there is diversion. You talk about Meryl Streep and instead of what's important, instead of the Russians. Then there is attack the messenger. You attack the press or whoever, and last through a trial balloons, you say, "Oh, everybody should have nuclear weapons," or whatever and you see if that's taken seriously, or some combination of those. Those are the four types of tweets, and they're all strategic. They're all used strategically. He is not just staying up at night having nightmares and having weird emotions and so on. He's strategic.

Ryssdal: You're setting up, speaking to proactivity, you're setting up a network that will offer this free framing device to activists. How is that going to work?

Lakoff: Well, it's the Citizen's Communication Network. We haven't got our website up yet. I'm using my own Twitter feed, which is @GeorgeLakoff, capital G, capital L, and my own official Facebook page, not the personal one, and that has been done very well so far. Right now, the Twitter feed is up to about 20,000 Twitter followers, and what's being retweeted by somebody who is 350,000. So we're getting stuff out there right away. What we're doing is doing framing advice, like this, and we have lots and lots of things we send things out to people as often as possible. And we have some wonderful volunteers who are setting up a better web site and that will be up pretty soon. And this is made available to anybody who wants it. All activists. And then we're working with a lot of activist groups, with Indivisible and with ACLU and lots of other groups, about 25 other groups, and just saying we are offering this to you for free. If you want it, fine, if your membership want it, great. If they don't want it, don't use it. And if they can, if they like it, pass it on. But the idea is just to say, "Get these ideas out there. Understand what is being done to you, understand what to do instead."

For example, stuff about getting rid of regulations. Regulations are our protections, at least they're intended to be protection. Sometimes they're not the best regulations, but they're intended to be protections. And that's what is crucial in regulating the EPA and the Food and Drug Administration, et cetera. So when you cut three quarters of the regulations, you're cutting three quarters of the protection for the public. Nobody has been saying it. It has to be said out loud. It has to be said. Or, take the notion of job creation, you know, the companies are going to create jobs. Well, they don't give you jobs just for the sake of being nice. They say, "Oh, we're nice, we'll give you give out 10,000 jobs." No. They only give out jobs to people who are profit creators. All employees are profit creators. They create profit to the people who've given them these jobs. That's why they got the jobs. And if you're creating profit, you deserve part of the profit, and you deserve to be treated with respect and so on. I mean, this is — the idea is to shift the frame from one role to another. From the corporate role to the public role, from the company, to the customer, to the employee, but also from the powerful to the weak, to shift the frame to say, "OK, what is it like from the other side?" And then, how do you talk about it?

Ryssdal: Can I ask you the literally versus seriously question that came up so much through the campaign, right? Should we take Donald Trump literally or should we take him seriously? And depending on what side of his arguments you were on, you were doing it the wrong way. Should we not have taken it both ways?

Lakoff: Well, yes. The point is that the term "literal" misses the fact that we normally think metaphorically and in terms of frames. And so most language is like that, and it's called literal language because they missed the fact that it's unconscious. So the whole definition of what counts as literal misses the nature of unconscious thought. And I've written a lot about this, as you can well imagine, but most of it about 30 years ago, and it just misses it. What's going on is that there is a strict father notion, which comes from family ideas but is ideal families and then is mapped on to everything, every aspect of life. And that is a metaphor, and it's there in your brain, you know, deep conceptual metaphors are physical. They are neural circuits that link to ideas in your brain, and they're active, and those ideas have influence and they have entailments, and you have to understand that that is what's really going on there unconsciously. But again, if you believe in enlightenment reason, and you went to college and studied those things and got all A's like most of the Democrats I know — I know a lot of wonderful people in the Democratic Party, and they have the following properties: They're very smart, they're very well intentioned, they have very good values, they work hard, they're honest, and they get it wrong. And they get it wrong because they went to college and they, they did so well, and they've been using it all their life. And it's hard to change. You know when that happens.

Wood: Well that is a remarkable segue to what we like to call our Make Me Smart question, which is the last question that we have to ask every guest which is: What is something that you were wrong - or what is something that you thought you knew, that you later turned out to be wrong about?

Lakoff: I thought Hillary would win.

Wood: Wow. Even though you predicted—

Lakoff: I predicted that he would get 47 percent of the vote. But I also predicted that she would not get all the votes that she thought she would, that the campaign was terrible. That just putting Trump on TV and assuming that people would vote against him was exactly wrong. They voted for him because it was an ad for Trump. And, you know, they missed in their campaign is the fact that you had strict father morality, especially about in poor working areas like Wisconsin and Michigan. You know, it wasn't just that people were out of jobs there and so on. It was the fact that they had that worldview. They also missed polling. Why the polls all wrong? The polls were wrong because they worked on demographics instead of on values. They didn't know how to do values-based fully. We know how to do value-based polling, but we can't get any of the Democratic pollsters to listen to us. You know, they're going to keep on polling the same way. Robby Mook was on this morning saying they're going to do all the same things that he did before. This is, this is a problem.

Wood: Professor Lakoff, thank you so much for your time.

Lakoff: My pleasure.