Mind and Language
The overarching question tackled in cognitive science research is as straightforward as it is profound: How are the brain and mind structured, where do these structures stem from, and how does language shape human thoughts and decision-making, specifically social and political decision-making?
By examining these concerns with methods spanning from cognitive linguistics to experimental social psychology and neuroscience, so-called cognitive science research has over the past decades unearthed astounding facts about human cognition and language -- with wide-ranging implications for economic, social, and political life.
Words are a most powerful means to make oneself comprehensible, reach customers, and mobilize fellow citizens because of a simple truth: Words evoke frames.
Every single word evokes a frame in the recipient’s mind. This is true for all language. The word “salt”, for instance, evokes a frame that infers concepts like eating, food, taste, and even thirst. Moreover, our brains simulate taste when processing the word -- that is, they activate the same neural circuitry that is activated when we taste something!
The reason for this powerful impact of language on our minds and perception is simple -- our brain can only attribute meaning to things by conjuring up its real world experiences with those things. Frames are the deep, conceptual patterns that store and structure this world experience. They are invoked by language and images and, in turn, guide our perception of whatever is the issue at hand.
Extensive behavioral research leaves no doubt -- it is frames, and not facts per se, that our minds rely on for decision-making. Whether regarding personal, professional, or political life, so-called framing effects are a daily reality: One and the same facts lead people to entirely different -- and often contradictory -- beliefs about what constitutes the right decision or action to take. This applies to political and societal challenges as much as it does to consumer decisions and personal life.
Contradictory to common myth, only a slim part of the reasoning and decision-making our minds go through every single day is conscious. Thus, while it is frames, and not facts in and of themselves, that guide our beliefs and actions, we rarely recognize their impact.
Realities like these are amongst the sweeping insights current cognitive science research generates on a daily basis on human thought, language, and behavior. And it is insights such as these that have long forced the scientific community to arrive at a firm conclusion: Language is action.
With this in mind, it is time to part with antiquated beliefs about ‘classic rationality’ and get realistic about what we all 'do' with our words on a daily basis. If you have a great product but you do not succeed in making your potential customers understand its benefits -- you probably have a framing problem. If your political program benefits your fellow citizens' wellbeing tremendously and the facts are on your side, but people will still not vote for you -- you most certainly have a framing problem.
At first glance, issues like economic inequality, healthcare, climate change, and taxation seem unrelated. However, when thinking and talking about them, people reliably fall into two camps: conservative and liberal. But why? How come that some people are conservative, others progressive, and yet others a bit of both – making them moderates and swing-voters, and most generally members of the so-called political middle?
Today's ideology and cognitive science research asks these exact questions – and generates surprising answers. People do not vote their material self-interest, but their values. However, much in contrast to common folk theory, political values are not a set of abstract beliefs that can be separated from daily life. Rather, they stem from people's everyday reasoning about what is right and what is wrong.
From these realities follow a number of principles for what it means to lead a truly honest, effective, and pluralistic discourse. They include: an emphasis on morality, a clear understanding of the ways in which one's policy stances arise from deeply held moral beliefs, and a language that allows to speak from one moral gut to the other, from one brain to the other -- without unnecessary discontinuity, deflection, or concealment of one's perceived moral urgency with regard to a given factual situation.
It is plain and simple: In politics, just as in everyday language, there is no ‘objective’ meaning in facts. Values bring about the political divide.
And it is those values that framing in political discourse must made visible. In order to be understood by potential voters, in order to generate support for a political cause, in order to do impactful advocacy reporting, in order to form political coalitions that work together well, and in order to be a truly free and empowered citizen participating in the democratic process.