George Lakoff on the science of personal politics

Understanding a person's political motivations is anything other than simple. Dr. George Lakoff, a bestselling author and cognitive linguist, explains about the science behind belief.

FLORIDA, November 29, 2012 — Politics might very well be the trickiest subject of all.

It is a fascinating hybrid of emotion and reason; where ideals and dreams meet dollars and cents. This, of course, means that understanding a person’s political motivations, let alone his or her overall philosophy, is complex beyond measure.

Truth be told, sometimes we can hardly understand why each of us hold the views that we do.

George Lakoff has devoted a great deal of his career to answering the tough questions about matters such as this. A cognitive linguist who has taught at UC Berkeley for four decades, he is the author of a library’s worth regarding the scientific aspects of political belief.

In this first part of a candid discussion, he shares his views about how people pursue their own interests in the political realm, whether or not humans are invariably geared toward irrationality, why ideologies often attract droves of people searching for a universal truth of some kind, and much more.     


Joseph F. Cotto: As humans, we are inclined to pursue our own interests. Nonetheless, when politics enters the equation, people often oppose what is most beneficial for them. How do you explain this paradox? 

Dr. George Lakoff: We have lots of interests, some financial, some social, some just personal. We don’t always pursue our interests. Mirror-neuron research shows that we are born with a brain structured to empathize with others and to connect to the natural world. So we may act out of empathy, or cooperation, or care about the natural world. We also learn a variety of moral concepts and different folks vary in their moral systems. 

Since all politics is moral — political policies are proposed on the basis that they are right, not wrong or irrelevant — and we may differ in our sense of what it right, we may vote our morality, rather than our material interests.

The “paradox”  only arises if you assume, falsely, that people only have material interests and only pursue those interests.

Cotto: Some scientists and scholars claim that humans are invariably geared toward irrationality. Do you agree with this idea?

Dr. Lakoff: Those scientists assume an untenable theory of “rationality,” namely, that rationality consists in consciously acting in accord with classical logic to maximize your material interests. But real rationality is mostly unconscious and uses cognitive frames, metaphors, images, and emotions that define goals and satisfactions of goals. This usually departs from classically defined “rationality.” Moreover, people act for all the reasons given above, not just their material interests. The problem is created by an inadequate view of rationality.

Cotto: In your opinion, can most political motivations be explained on a rational basis? 

Dr. Lakoff: If you take a classical view of rationality, no. If you take a real view of rationality as we have just done, the answer might be yes. 
Cotto: Whether they should be rooted in theism or politics, various ideologies often attract droves of willing participants searching for a universal truth of some kind. Why, from your perspective, are ideologies so powerful?

Dr. Lakoff: Ideologies arise from our most primal experiences as children — of strict or nurturant parenting, or some of both, as well as other primal experiences. Once learned as neural circuitry, they tend not to change.            
Cotto: Very often, reactionary ideas gain far more traction in politics than proactive ones do. Why do you suppose that this is?

Dr. Lakoff: There are two parts to this answer, depending on what you mean by “reactionary.” 

Meaning 1: traditional. If old moral systems and frames are fixed in people’s brains, that is what they will understand. 

Meaning 2: radical ultraconservative. Over the past 30 to 40 years, radical conservatives have established a remarkable communications system and, together with smart framing experts, they have created a powerful language of conservatism that has been repeated almost daily throughout both the US and other countries. This has the effect of activating, and therefore strengthening, conservative ideas in the brains of the public.

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Joseph Cotto

Joseph F. Cotto is a social journalist by trade and student of history by lifestyle choice. He hails from central Florida, writing about political, economic, and social issues of the day. In the past, he was a contributor to Blogcritics Magazine, among other publications. He is currently at work on a book about American society.

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