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Sep
22nd
Thu
permalink

Timothy D. Wilson on The Social Psychological Narrative: ‘It’s not the objective environment that influences people, but their constructs of the world’

                                 

"In the mid 1970’s, Tim Wilson and Dick Nisbett opened the basement door with their landmark paper entitled “Telling More Than We Can Know,” [pdf] in which they reported a series of experiments showing that people are often unaware of the true causes of their own actions, and that when they are asked to explain those actions, they simply make stuff up. People don’t realize they are making stuff up, of course; they truly believe the stories they are telling about why they did what they did.  But as the experiments showed, people are telling more than they can know. The basement door was opened by experimental evidence, and the unconscious took up permanent residence in the living room. Today, psychological science is rife with research showing the extraordinary power of unconscious mental processes. (…)

At the center of all his work lies a single enigmatic insight: we seem to know less about the worlds inside our heads than about the world our heads are inside.

The Torah asks this question: “Is not a flower a mystery no flower can explain?” Some scholars have said yes, some scholars have said no. Wilson has said, “Let’s go find out.” He has always worn two professional hats — the hat of the psychologist and the hat of the methodologist. He has written extensively about the importance of using experimental methods to solve real world problems, and in his work on the science of psychological change — he uses a scientific flashlight to chase away a whole host of shadows by examining the many ways in which human beings try to change themselves — from self-help to psychotherapy — and asking whether these things really work, and if so, why? His answers will surprise many people and piss off the rest. I predict that this new work will be the center of a very interesting storm.”

Daniel Gilbert, Harvard College Professor of Psychology at Harvard University; Director of Harvard’s Hedonic Psychology Laboratory; Author, Stumbling on Happiness.

It’s not the objective environment that influences people, but their constructs of the world. You have to get inside people’s heads and see the world the way they do. You have to look at the kinds of narratives and stories people tell themselves as to why they’re doing what they’re doing. What can get people into trouble sometimes in their personal lives, or for more societal problems, is that these stories go wrong. People end up with narratives that are dysfunctional in some way.

We know from cognitive behavioral therapy and clinical psychology that one way to change people’s narratives is through fairly intensive psychotherapy. But social psychologists have suggested that, for less severe problems, there are ways to redirect narratives more easily that can have amazingly powerful long-term effects. This is an approach that I’ve come to call story editing. By giving people little prompts, suggestions about the ways they might reframe a situation, or think of it in a slightly different way, we can send them down a narrative path that is much healthier than the one they were on previously. (…)

This little message that maybe it’s not me, it’s the situation I’m in, and that that can change, seemed to alter people’s stories in ways that had dramatic effects down the road. Namely, people who got this message, as compared to a control group that did not, got better grades over the next couple of years and were less likely to drop out of college. Since then, there have been many other demonstrations of this sort that show that little ways of getting people to redirect their narrative from one path down another is a powerful tool to help people live better lives. (…)

Think back to the story editing metaphor: What these writing exercises do is make us address problems that we haven’t been able to make sense of and put us through a sense-making process of reworking it in such a way that we gain a new perspective and find some meaning, so that we basically come up with a better story that allows us to put that problem behind us. This is a great example of a story editing technique that can be quite powerful. (…)

Social psychology is a branch of psychology that began in the 1950s, mostly by immigrants from Germany who were escaping the Nazi regime — Kurt Lewin being the most influential ones. What they had to offer at that time was largely an alternative to behaviorism. Instead of looking at behavior as solely the product of our objective reinforcement environment, Lewin and others said you have to get inside people’s heads and look at the world as they perceive it. These psychologists were very influenced by Gestalt psychologists who were saying the same thing about perception, and they applied this lesson to the way the mind works in general. (…) But to be honest, the field is a little hard to define.  What is social psychology?  Well, the social part is about interactions with other people, and topics such as conformity are active areas of research. (…)

Most economists don’t take the social psychological approach of trying to get inside the heads of people and understanding how they interpret the world. (…)

My dream is that policymakers will become more familiar with this approach and be as likely to call upon a social psychologist as an economist to address social issues. (…)

Another interesting question is the role of evolutionary theory in psychology, and social psychology in particular.  (…)

Evolutionary psychology has become a dominant force in the field. There are many who use it as their primary theoretical perspective, as a way to understand why we do what we do. (…)

There are some striking parallels between psychoanalytic theory and evolutionary theory. Both theories, at some general level are true. Evolutionary theory, of course, shows how the forces of natural selection operated on human beings. Psychoanalytic theory argues that our childhood experiences mold us in certain ways and give us outlooks on the world. Our early relationships with our parents lead to unconscious structures that can be very powerful. (…)

One example where evolutionary psychology led to some interesting testable hypotheses is work by Jon Haidt, my colleague at the University of Virginia. He has developed a theory of moral foundations that says that all human beings endorse the same list of moral values, but that people of different political stripes believe some of these values are more important than others. In other words, liberals may have somewhat different moral foundations than conservatives. Jon has persuasively argued that one reason that political discourse has become so heated and divisive in our country is that there is a lack of understanding in one camp of the moral foundations that the other camp is using to interpret and evaluate the world. If we can increase that understanding, we might lower the heat and improve the dialogue between people on opposite ends of the political spectrum.

Another way in which evolutionary theory has been used is to address questions about the origins of religion. This is not a literature I have followed that closely, to be honest, but there’s obviously a very interesting discourse going on about group selection and the origins and purpose of religion. The only thing I’ll add is, back to what I’ve said before about the importance of having narratives and stories to give people a sense of meaning and purpose, well, religion is obviously one very important source of such narratives. Religion gives us a sense that there is a purpose and a meaning to life, the sense that we are important in the universe, and that our lives aren’t meaningless specks like a piece of sand on a beach. That can be very powerful for our well-being. I don’t think religion is the only way to accomplish that; there are many belief systems that can give us a sense of meaning and purpose other than religion. But religion can fill that void.”

Timothy D. Wilson, is the Sherrell J. Aston Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia and a researcher of self-knowledge and affective forecasting., The Social Psychological Narrative — or — What Is Social Psychology, Anyway?, Edge, 6 July 2011 (video and full transcript) (Illustration: Hope Kroll, Psychological 3-D narrative)

See also:

Daniel Kahneman: The Marvels and the Flaws of Intuitive Thinking
Iain McGilchrist on The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World
Dean Buonomano on ‘Brain Bugs’ - Cognitive Flaws That ‘Shape Our Lives’
David Eagleman on how we constructs reality, time perception, and The Secret Lives of the Brain
David Deutsch: A new way to explain explanation
Cognition, perception, relativity tag on Lapidarium notes

Jul
3rd
Sun
permalink

George Lakoff on metaphors, explanatory journalism and the ‘Real Rationality’

    

Metaphor is a fundamental mechanism of mind, one that allows us to use what we know about our physical and social experience to provide understanding of countless other subjects. Because such metaphors structure our most basic understandings of our experience, they are “metaphors we live by”—metaphors that can shape our perceptions and actions without our ever noticing them. (…)

We are neural beings, (…) our brains take their input from the rest of our bodies. What our bodies are like and how they function in the world thus structures the very concepts we can use to think. We cannot think just anything – only what our embodied brains permit. (…)

The mind is inherently embodied. Thought is mostly unconscious. Abstract concepts are largely metaphorical.”

George Lakoff, cited in Daniel Lende, Brainy Trees, Metaphorical Forests: On Neuroscience, Embodiment, and Architecture, Neuroanthropology, Jan 10, 2012.

"For Lakoff, language is not a neutral system of communication, because it is always based on frames, conceptual metaphors, narratives, and emotions. Political thought and language is inherently moral and emotional. (…)

The way people really reason — Real Rationality — coming new understandings of the brain—something that up-to-date marketers have already done. Enlightenment reason, we now know, was a false theory of rationality.

Most thought is unconscious. It doesn’t work by mathematical logic. You can’t reason directly about the world—because you can only conceptual what your brain and body allow, and because ideas are structured using frames.” Lakoff says. “As Charles Fillmore has shown, all words are defined in terms of conceptual frames, not in terms of some putative objective, mind-free world.”

“People really reason using the logic of frames, metaphors, and narratives, and real decision making requires emotion, as Antonio Damasio showed in Descartes’ Error.” 

“A lot of reason does not serve self interest, but is rather about empathizing with and connecting to others.”

People Don’t Decide Using ‘Just the Facts’

Contemporary explanatory journalism, in particular, is prone to the false belief that if the facts are presented to people clearly enough, they will accept and act upon them, Lakoff says. “In the ‘marketplace of ideas’ theory,  that the best factually based logical argument will always win. But this doesn’t actually happen.”

“Journalists always wonder, ‘We’ve reported on all the arguments, why do people vote wrong?’” Lakoff says. “They’ve missed the main event.”

Many journalists think that “framing” a story or issue is “just about choices of words and manipulation,” and that one can report factually and neutrally without framing. But language itself isn’t neutral. If you study the way the brain processes language, Lakoff says, “every word is defined with respect to frames. You’re framing all the time.” Morality and emotion are already embedded in the way people think and the way people perceive certain words—and most of this processing happens unconsciously. “You can only learn things that fit in with what your brain will allow,” Lakoff says.

A recent example? The unhappy phrase “public option.”

“When you say public, it means ‘government’ to conservatives,” Lakoff explains. “When you say ‘option,’ it means two things: it’s not necessary, it’s just an ‘option,’ and secondly it’s a public policy term, a bureaucratic term. To conservatives, ‘public option’ means government bureaucracy, the very worst thing you could have named this. They could have called it the America Plan. They could have called it doctor-patient care.”

According to Lakoff, because of the conservative success in shaping public discourse through their elaborate communication system, the most commonly used words often have been given a conservative meaning. “Tax relief,” for example, suggests that taxation is an affliction to be relieved.

Don’t Repeat the Language Politicians Use: Decode It

Instead of simply adopting the language politicians use to frame an issue, Lakoff argues, journalists need to analyze the language political figures use and explain the moral content of particular words and arguments.

That means, for example, not just quoting a politician about whether a certain policy infringes or supports American “liberty,” but explaining what he or she means by “liberty,” how this conception of liberty fits into the politician’s overall moral outlook, and how it contrasts with other conceptions of liberty.

It also means spelling out the full implications of the metaphors politicians choose. In the recent coverage of health care reform, Lakoff says, one of the “hidden metaphors” that needed to be explored was whether politicians we’re talking about healthcare as a commodity or as a necessity and a right.

Back on the 2007 presidential campaign trail, Lakoff pointed out, Rudy Giuliani called Obama’s health care plans “socialist,” while he himself compared buying health care to buying a flatscreen tv set, using the metaphor of health care as a commodity, not a necessity. A few liberal bloggers were outraged, but several newspapers reported his use of the metaphor without comment or analysis, rather than exploring what it revealed about Giuliani’s worldview. (…)

A Dictionary of the Real Meanings of Words

What would a nonpartisan explanatory journalism be like? To make nonpartisan decoding easier, Lakoff thinks journalists should create an online dictionary of the different meanings of words—“ not just a glossary, but a little Wikipedia-like website,” as he puts it. This site would have entries to explain the differences between the moral frameworks of conservatives and progressives, and what they each typically mean when they say words like “freedom.” Journalists across the country could link to the site whenever they sensed a contested word.

A project like this would generate plenty of resistance, Lakoff acknowledges. “What that says is most people don’t know what they think. That’s extremely scary…the public doesn’t want to be told, ‘You don’t know what you think.’” The fact is that about 98 percent of thought is unconscious.”

But, he says, people are also grateful when they’re told what’s really going on, and why political figures reason as they do. He would like to see a weekly column in the New York Times and other newspapers decoding language and framing, and analyzing what can and cannot be said politically, and he’d also like to see cognitive science and the study of framing added to journalism school curricula.

Ditch Objectivity, Balance, and ‘The Center ‘

Lakoff has two further sets of advice for improving explanatory journalism. The first is to ditch journalism’s emphasis on balance. Global warming and evolution are real. Unscientific views are not needed for “balance.”

“The idea that truth is balanced, that objectivity is balanced, is just wrong,” Lakoff says. Objectivity is a valuable ideal when it means unbiased reporting, Lakoff argues. But too often, the need for objectivity means that journalists hide their own judgments of an issue behind “public opinion.” The journalistic tradition of “always having to get a quote from somebody else” when the truth is obvious is foolish, Lakoff says.

So is the naïve reporting of poll data, since poll results can change drastically depending on the language and the framing of the questions. The framng of the questions should be part of reporting on polls.

Finally, Lakoff’s research suggests that many Americans, perhaps 20 per cent, are “biconceptuals” who have both conservative and liberal moral systems in their brains, but apply them to different issues. In some cases they can switch from one ideological position to another, based on the way an issue is framed. These biconceptuals occupy the territory that’s usually labeled “centrist.” “There isn’t such a thing as ‘the center.’ There are just people who are conservative on some issues and liberal on others, with lots of variations occurring. Journalists accept the idea of a “center” with its own ideology, and that’s just not the case,” he says.

Journalists tell “stories.” Those stories are often narratives framed from a particular moral or political perspective. Journalists need to be more upfront about the moral and political underpinnings of the stories they write and the angles they choose.

Journalism Isn’t Neutral–It’s Based on Empathy

“Democracy is based on empathy, with people not just caring, but acting on that care —having social as well as personal responsibility…That’s a view that many journalists have. That’s the reason they become journalists rather than stockbrokers. They have a certain view of democracy. That’s why a lot of journalists are liberals. They actually care about how politics can hurt people, about the social causes of harm. That’s a really different view than the conservative view: if you get hurt and you haven’t taken personal responsibility, then you deserve to get hurt—as when you sign on to a mortgage you can’t pay. Investigative journalism is very much an ethical enterprise, and I think journalists have to ask themselves, ‘What is the ethics behind the enterprise?’ and not be ashamed of it.” Good investigative journalism uncovers real facts, but is done, and should be done, with a moral purpose.

To make a moral story look objective, “journalists tend to pin moral reactions on other people: ‘I’m going to find someone around here who thinks it’s outrageous’…This can make outrageous moral action into a matter of public opinion rather than ethics.”

In some ways, Lakoff’s suggestions were in line with the kind of journalism that one of our partners,  the non-profit investigative journalism outlet ProPublica, already does. In its mission statement, ProPublica, makes its commitment to “moral force” explicit. “Our work focuses exclusively on truly important stories, stories with ‘moral force,’” the statement reads. “We do this by producing journalism that shines a light on exploitation of the weak by the strong and on the failures of those with power to vindicate the trust placed in them.”

He emphasized the importance of doing follow-ups to investigative stories, rather than letting the public become jaded by a constant succession of outrages that flare on the front page and then disappear. Most of ProPublica’s investigations are ongoing and continually updated on its site.

Cognitive Explanation:’ A Different Take on ProPublica’s Mission 

But Lakoff also had some very nontraditional suggestions about what it would mean for ProPublica to embark on a different kind of explanatory journalism project. “There are two different forms of explanatory journalism. One is material explanation — the kind of investigative reporting now done at ProPublica: who got paid what by whom, what actions resulted in harm, and so on. All crucial,” he noted. “But equally crucial, and not done, is cognitive and communicative explanation.”

“Cognitive explanation depends on what conceptual system lies behind political positions on issues and how the working of people’s brains explains their political behavior. For example, since every word of political discourse evokes a frame and the moral system behind it, the superior conservative communication system reaches most Americans 24/7/365. The more one hears conservative language and not liberal language, the more the brains of those listening get changed. Conservative communication with an absence of liberal communication exerts political pressure on Democrats whose constituents hear conservative language all day every day. Explanatory journalism should be reporting on the causal effects of conservative framing and the conservative communicative superiority.”

“ProPublica seems not to be explicit about conflicting views of what constitutes ‘moral force.’ ProPublica does not seem to be covering the biggest story in the country, the split over what constitutes morality in public policy. Nor is it clear that ProPublica studies the details of framing that permeate public discourse. Instead, ProPublica assumes a view of “moral force” in deciding what to cover and how to cover it.

“For example, ProPublica has not covered the difference in moral reasoning behind the conservative and progressive views on tax policy, health care, global warming and energy policy, and so on for major issue after major issue.

“ProPublica also is not covering a major problem in policy-making — the assumption of classical views of rationality and the ways they have been scientifically disproved in the cognitive and brain sciences.

“ProPublica has not reported on the disparity between the conservative and liberal communication systems, nor has it covered the globalization of conservatism — the international exportation of American conservative strategists, framing, training, and communication networks.

“When ProPublica uncovers facts about organ transplants and nursing qualifications, that’s fine. But where is ProPublica on the reasons for the schisms in our politics? Explanatory journalism demands another level of understanding.

“ProPublica, for all its many virtues, has room for improvement, in much the same way as journalism in general — especially in explanatory journalism. Cognitive and communicative explanation must be added to material explanation.”

What Works In the Brain: Narrative & Metaphor

As for creating Explanatory Journalism that resonates with the way people process information, Lakoff suggested two familiar tools: narrative and metaphor.

The trick to finding the right metaphors for complicated systems, he said, is to figure out what metaphors the experts themselves use in the way they think. “Complex policy is usually understood metaphorically by people in the field,” Lakoff says. What’s crucial is learning how to distinguish the useful frames from the distorting or overly-simplistic ones.

As for explaining policy, Lakoff says, “the problem with this is that policy is made in a way that is not understandable…Communication is always seen as last, as the tail on the dog, whereas if you have a policy that people don’t understand, you’re going to lose. What’s the point of trying to get support for a major health care reform if no one understands it?

One of the central problems with policy, Lakoff says, is that policy-makers tend to take their moral positions so much for granted that the policies they develop seem to them like the “merely practical” things to do.

Journalists need to restore the real context of policy, Lakoff says, by trying “to get people in the government and policy-makers in the think tanks to understand and talk about what the moral basis of their policy is, and to do this in terms that are understandable.”

George Lakoff, American cognitive linguist and professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, interviewed by Lois Beckett in Explain yourself: George Lakoff, cognitive linguist, explainer.net, 31 January, 2011 (Illustration source)

See also:

Professor George Lakoff: Reason is 98% Subconscious Metaphor in Frames & Cultural Narratives
Timothy D. Wilson on The Social Psychological Narrative: ‘It’s not the objective environment that influences people, but their constructs of the world’
The Difference Between Online Knowledge and Truly Open Knowledge. In the era of the Internet facts are not bricks but networks, Lapidarium notes
☞ Metaphor tag on Lapidarium notes