Presentation on Cognitive Framing for Health and Strength Action Group.


“Framing” has become a big buzzword for left/progressive groups in North America. This is largely due to the work of Cognitive Scientist Professor George Lakoff in trying to explain to such groups why they keep losing the debate on the shape of society to the neoliberals and other “right wing” groups.

Lakoff gets frustrated because these people do not even understand his explanations. They think that all they have to do is adopt different phrase words in order to appeal to working class people. They are incapable of seeing their own “Aristotelean” way of thinking.

the cognitive revolution

This has always been a problem with western culture and civilization from the time of the Ancient Greeks. Even the scientific revolution has had a limited effect. In fact, the scientific revolution is very much an unfinished revolution even in the universities. I have found in my own experiences with academia a conflict between scientific and philosophic academics.

The trouble with modern liberals is that they are still educated in the Aristotelean, scholastic, rationalist line of western thinking which is very flawed. As Lakoff has noted, most right wing people have gone instead to business school and learned “marketing”. In other words, persuasion using the new academic discipline of Cognitive Science which has developed in the past fifty years.

I think the real ancestor of cognitive scientists is the philosopher David Hume back in the 1700s in Scotland, in the so called “age of reason”. He told people then that they have in fact no such faculty as “reason” and everything they do differs from what animals do only by degree. Later, Hegel in Germany told people that everything we know and do comes from a long “dialectic” process, passed on from one generation to the next.

Dialectics means that people seek a solution for a problem, the solution creates a new problem or “contradiction”, the solution for that creates another contradiction, and so on. This is often called, “thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, the synthesis becoming the new thesis. Karl Marx was a great exponent of Hegelian dialectics.

A thinker called Alfred Korzybski in the 1940s developed what he called a system of “general semantics”, which taught people to solve their cognitive problems by thinking in a non Aristotelean or “Null A” way. People needed to become “conscious of abstracting”, that is, aware that their internal model of the world is not the same thing as the external reality. The word for a thing is not the thing itself, it is only a symbol.

But cognitive science really got going in the 1950s and 60s when people started trying to create artificial intelligence. They were forced to realize that their assumptions about how human intelligence worked were totally wrong. Machines which tried to solve problems with”reason” and “logic” got nowhere. If they tried solving problems by running through every possible solution they ran into a “combinatory explosion” because there are always infinite possibilities.

So scientists realized that intelligence was really about reducing huge amounts of information to simple patterns and models which could be dealt with; “reduction to simplicity”. Cognition requires three orders of abstraction; identification of salient objects in the world, identification of relations between these objects, and identification of principles governing relations between objects. Order one, two and three.

What is called “magical thinking” is the misunderstanding of the principles of relationships between objects.

the evolution of understanding

This system evolved like everything else in living things, from simple to complex. The simplest organisms could react to things only reflexively, as by jerking their entire body in response to a stimulus at one spot. More complex organisms developed what is called “embodiment”. They developed an internal map of their bodies in order to control and direct them.

These days people who design complex computer control systems realize that they have to create a model within the computer’s circuitry, of the system it is to control.

Next, organisms had to develop a model of the external world in order to be able to respond to it and survive. It had to do this using a limited amount of sensory information and available processing power of the brain. A brain, even a primitive one, uses a lot of energy.

The larger brains needed to be able to make and use fire and tools required the extra energy made possible by the use of fire and tools. Using fire and tools enabled the brain to develop the circuitry for language. Manual processes are a kind of story or narrative, with a subject and object and a correct sequence to follow.

People had sign language before they developed speech. It took a long time after speech to start raising plants and animals and creating civilization. Learning how to do all these things required narratives; telling a stories about how things work and how to do things.

how understanding works

This is why the professor telling the student that her paper is a mere “narrative” and not in a proper form, is so stupid. What he means is, she is not thinking in an Aristotelean way. In other words, not “proving” by a “reasoned argument” that things are the way they are.

People who try to “reason” about things invariably get everything wrong. All knowledge is built from what is often called the “scientific method” but is really just using one’s brain the way it was designed by nature to work. You do not construct an ideal world in your head and then try to make it work in the real world. You look at how the world works and build a model of it in your head, always remembering that what you see depends on what you have already learned.

In the same way, if you want to convince somebody of something, you show that it is a better tool for understanding and for living in the world. You do not assume that the way you understand something is a universal truth. If you are a true scumball, you will try to confuse people and discredit what they know using abstract “reasoning”, meaning arguments which cannot be rebutted in their own terms but which are disconnected from reality.

A serious activist should above all refuse to deal with anyone who will not deal with others like human beings, using the system the human brain is set up with. This is the system of embodiment and narrative; of schema and frames, symbols, tropes, and analogies. Everyone thinks this way, because our brains are hard wired by evolution to see and process things in this way.

However, everyone’s experiences and perceived interests are different. Therefore a person’s inner model of the world can change rapidly when parts of the old one are not working anymore and where there is motive to change them. The key to persuasion is offering a better and more appealing narrative or framing.

The obstacles to people understanding something in a different way are usually social, not based on facts. It is said that “where you sit is where you stand” and ” it is hard to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on him not understanding it”. Often holding contradictory ideas is a means of self protection; if you can’t do anything to change something, acknowledging it can just lead to depression.


So here are the basics of cognitive science as they relate to persuasion. It can actually get a lot more complicated than this. It is about a lot more than just “reframing” an issue, as those who misinterpreted Lakoff thought.

“Framing” an issue does not matter much if you do not have a better idea than what you are challenging. The real reason the “left/progressive” establishment has failed against neo-liberalism in the information wars of the past forty years is that they have nothing better to offer. It is not just that they think they have “The Facts” and that if people who are given the facts do not reason to the “correct” conclusion they must be stupid or crazy or evil. What they have to offer is as insulting and threatening to ordinary people as what the neo-liberals want.

The thing about the “human rights” approach to a Basic Income is that we do have something better to offer. The broad mass of people can be convinced of it if we can reach them, and if we can overcome the confusion that will be thrown up by those who want the forms of BI which will be bad for most people.

This is the motive for learning cognitive science; to be able to engage in this “framing” war. It is not about just trying to hijack the elite’s frames. You have to build new frames and completely new schema in people’s heads, and that is a long and hard job.

For example, people have been conditioned for generations to a negative framing of the word “socialism”, the organization of society to meet human needs rather than that of profit taking organizations. The term activates the frames of “communism” or of “out of control government”, taxing everyone to death and impeding their freedoms. It brings in the whole libertarian or neoliberal schema which sees all of history as a struggle against government. Government is always bad and we would all be better off with no government.

Trying to defeat the “socialism-bad” frame in relation to a Basic Income, by trying to reframe BI as a “socialist way to achieve the aims of capitalism”, is not going to impress many people. The whole neo-liberal schema, and all its composite frames and narratives, has to be tackled head on. Defeating it requires counter narratives, especially of democracy as a long, slow revolution for government in the interests of a majority. Or, “no-government” as chaos, as insecurity, a war of all against all, etc.

understanding is still evolving

I am not qualified to be a guru on cognitive mapping and information war. It requires some serious learning and the learning resources out there are not adequate yet, but they are getting better. I am publishing along with this article a few resources to get people started on an in depth study of “framing”.

This is what human rights oriented Basic Income or Guaranteed Living Income activists should be doing. We do not need more “rational” people going around telling everybody what is good for them by “fact based” analysis. While supplying suppressed facts is necessary too, people have to be persuaded to think about the subject in a better way. You do that by first having a better way of thinking about it, that people can support.

You can only convince those who are reachable. So, we can also do without people who think it is all about converting their opponents. Usually they have the idea that politics is about debates among elites. The worst are the academic rationalists who think they have to repeat the opponents debating points to show they have understood them. What they show is that they have accepted the opponents terms before they start, the sure way to lose any debate. Then they reinforce the opponents ideas. And finally they show they have no better ideas of their own.

I sum up my framing message for Basic Income activists thusly; have something to show people that is better than what your opponents are offering. Recognize that you have opponents, and that you are in an informational class war. Communicate the message in the way that people understand.

Of course, learn all you can about cognitive framing and develop, not your “arguments”, but completing frames and a thorough schema of a society built around a living income for everybody. All this will require considerable learning, far beyond what I can offer. I am still learning, myself.

Because the BI movement does not have these frames and schema and narratives ready yet, it is itself not quite ready yet. We have the “what” but not the “why” and “how”.