Monday, July 18, 2005

One More Quick Note On Lakoff In the NYTs

I wanted to say something about this passage from the article (see the previous post for a link):
According to Lakoff, Democrats have been wrong to assume that people are rational actors who make their decisions based on facts; in reality, he says, cognitive science has proved that all of us are programmed to respond to the frames that have been embedded deep in our unconscious minds, and if the facts don't fit the frame, our brains simply reject them. Lakoff explained to me that the frames in our brains can be ''activated'' by the right combination of words and imagery, and only then, once the brain has been unlocked, can we process the facts being thrown at us.
I would remove some of the language in the paragraph. "Programmed," for instance, is a nasty word outside of the context of the computer metaphor for mind, and immediately invokes the thought of brainwashing that show up in the article. That's not what I want to talk about, though. What I want to talk about is in this sentence:
Cognitive science has proved that all of us are programmed to respond to the frames that have been embedded deep in our unconscious minds, and if the facts don't fit the frame, our brains simply reject them.
If we ignore more poor wording ("proved," in the context of science, and in particular, a science as young as cognitive science? I mean, come on! Popper and Quine are both rolling over in their graves), this says something that is both true and not quite true. Our schemas (or frames) tune our perceptual and conceptual mechanisms, and thus, information that is not relevant to those schemas (I call that information schema-irrelevant) tends to get ignored. I emphasize "tends," because sometimes that information does get in.

But what Lakoff's short description doesn't mention, and thus what makes it not quite true, is that information that does not "fit the frame," but which is not irrelevant to it (which, for instance, contradicts some of the information contained in the frame) will, in fact, be more readily noticed (I call this schema-inconsistent information). If cognitive science has "proved" anything about schemas, it is not that we reject irrelevant information but that, if information is relevant but inconsistent (i.e., it's schema-inconsistent), we are actually more likely to notice and remember it! Information that is consistent with our schemas or frames (you can probably guess that I call it schema-consistent information) is easily missed, because we're simply expecting it. We're less likely to remember the particulars of that information, and once our schemas are activated, we're more likely to remember that schema-consistent information was there even if it wasn't. Schema-inconsistent information is surprising, and we're built to notice surprising information. If instead what Lakoff said were true, then framing simply would not work, because if our schemas simply reject information that is inconsistent with them, then they would reject all new frames, no matter how often we repeated them. We'd also be pretty maladapted creatures, running around never noticing any new or surprising information after we've developed a lot of schemas.

I imagine Lakoff is aware of this, but if we read only that statement, we'd miss one of the most important aspects of framing. The best way to counter a frame is to provide another that presents the reader/listener with a bunch of relevant but frame/schema-inconsistent information. This new information is in fact required to get people to think about the issues from a new perspective, using new base domains, or new schemas. When we are coming up with new frames, then, we have to carefully consider what information we want people to notice, and present it in such a way that it is immediately relevant and at the same time inconsistent with the entrenched frame. Doing so will highlight that information while simultaneously highlighting the problems with the opposition's way of approaching an issue. I'm pretty sure that's what Lakoff wants Democrats to do.

Once again we see that if we listen to Lakoff's version of framing, we won't be able to do what Lakoff wants.


coturnix said...

I have to come back tomorrow and re-read this and think through it...perhaps go back to some of your older posts.

I have not written much about Lakoff lately, but in more recent posts I used the longer phrase "frame of mind" instead of "frame", in order to eliminate the frame=language false equation and stress that I am talking about the brain.

I am not prepared to introduce a less-well-known term into my blog posts, e.g., schemas, and then have to define it over and over again. I hope that "frame of mind" bridges the readers' familiarity with the term and the cognitive meaning of it. What do you think?

Chris said...

I don't know about "frames of mind." I suppose it could work in contrast with "frames of language," or something similar. I opt for "schemas" because I'm a cognitive scientist, and that's what cognitive scientists have been calling them since the days of Kant (Kant being the first real cognitive scientist, of course).