Preface

Ten years ago, in 2004, when the frst edition of this book appeared,
hardly anyone had heard of or thought about, much less discussed, how
social and political issues were framed. Framing was an unknown and
undiscussed concept, outside of the academic feld of frame semantics.
Don’t Tink of an Elephant! became a best seller and changed all
that. Discussions of how issues are framed are now commonplace in
the national media. Millions of people hear the word “frame” in a
discussion of issues and understand, at least basically, what it means.
Tat is a lot for one small book to have accomplished.
But Don’t Tink of an Elephant! had higher goals. At the time,
the Republicans were doing a much better job at framing issues their
way than the Democrats were. Republican framing superiority had
played a major part in their takeover of Congress in 1994. I and oth-
ers had hoped that, starting in 2004, a widespread understanding of
how framing worked would allow Democrats to reverse the trend.
In the 2008 election, Barack Obama led a Democratic sweep
of the White House and Congress, using far superior framing, as
well as superior on-the-ground tactics—besides being a far superior
candidate. I had hoped that the superior framing would continue.
It didn’t. Almost immediately afer Obama’s inauguration in 2009,
the Republicans regained framing superiority in public discourse, and
that played a major role in the ascendancy of the Tea Party in Con-
gress and in state houses throughout the nation. Now Republicans are
setting their framing sights on the cities as well as the states.
What happened?
Tis tenth anniversary edition of Don’t Tink of An Elephant! will
do more than just recap what framing is and how it works. Te goal
of this edition is to explain what happened, why the Democrats have
gone back to losing framing wars, and what can be done about it.
Tat’s a tall order. Let’s get started. We will recap Framing 101
and then go on to Framing 102 and beyond.
George Lakof
Berkeley, California
June, 2014

INTRODUCTION

Reframing Is Social Change
We think with our brains. We have no choice. It may seem that
certain politicians think with other parts of their anatomy. But they
too think with their brains.
Why does this matter for politics? Because all thought is physical.
Tought is carried out by neural circuits in the brain. We can only
understand what our brains allow us to understand.
Te deepest of those neural structures are relatively fxed. Tey
don’t change readily or easily. And we are mostly unconscious of
their activity and impact.
In fact, about 98 percent of what our brains are doing is below
the level of consciousness. As a result, we may not know all, or even
most, of what in our brains determines our deepest moral, social,
and political beliefs. And yet we act on the basis of those largely
unconscious beliefs.
My feld—cognitive science—has found ways to study uncon-
scious, as well as conscious, modes of thought. As a cognitive scientist,
my job is to help make the unconscious conscious, to fnd out and let
the world know what is determining our social and political behavior.
I believe that such knowledge can lead to positive social and political
change. Why? Because what goes on in people’s brains matters.
Do we have to go to the neural level to understand our politics?
In some cases, yes. Diving that deep will be important, and we
will discuss the brain when necessary. But, on the whole, the most
important brain structures for our politics can be studied from the
perspective of the mind. Tey are called “frames.”
Frames
Frames are mental structures that shape the way we see the world.
As a result, they shape the goals we seek, the plans we make, the way
xi i • THE ALL NEW DON’ T THI NK OF AN ELEPHANT!
we act, and what counts as a good or bad outcome of our actions. In
politics our frames shape our social policies and the institutions we
form to carry out policies. To change our frames is to change all of
this. Reframing is social change.
You can’t see or hear frames. Tey are part of what we cognitive
scientists call the “cognitive unconscious”—structures in our brains
that we cannot consciously access, but know by their consequences.
What we call “common sense” is made up of unconscious, automatic,
efortless inferences that follow from our unconscious frames.
We also know frames through language. All words are defned
relative to conceptual frames. When you hear a word, its frame is
activated in your brain.
Yes, in your brain. As the title of this book shows, even when you
negate a frame, you activate the frame. If I tell you, “Don’t think of
an elephant!,” you’ll think of an elephant.
Tough I found this out frst in the study of cognitive linguistics, it
has begun to be confrmed by neuroscience. When a macaque monkey
grasps an object, a certain group of neurons in the monkey’s ventral
premotor cortex (which choreographs actions, but does not directly
move the body) are activated. When the monkey is trained not to
grasp the object, most of those neurons are inhibited (they turn of),
but a portion of the same neurons used in grasping still turn on. Tat
is, to actively not grasp requires thinking of what grasping would be.
Not only does negating a frame activate that frame, but the more
it is activated, the stronger it gets. Te moral for political discourse is
clear: When you argue against someone on the other side using their
language and their frames, you are activating their frames, strength-
ening their frames in those who hear you, and undermining your own
views. For progressives, this means avoiding the use of conservative
language and the frames that the language activates. It means that
you should say what you believe using your language, not theirs.
Reframing
When we successfully reframe public discourse, we change the way
the public sees the world. We change what counts as common sense.
REFRAMI NG I S SOCI AL CHANGE • xi i i
Because language activates frames, new language is required for new
frames. Tinking diferently requires speaking diferently.
Reframing is not easy or simple. It is not a matter of fnding some
magic words. Frames are ideas, not slogans. Reframing is more a
matter of accessing what we and like-minded others already believe
unconsciously, making it conscious, and repeating it till it enters
normal public discourse. It doesn’t happen overnight. It is an ongo-
ing process. It requires repetition and focus and dedication.
To achieve social change, reframing requires a change in public
discourse, and that requires a communication system. Conservatives
in America have developed a very extensive and sophisticated com-
munication system that progressives have not yet developed. Fox
News is only the tip of the iceberg. Progressives need to understand
what an efective communication system is and develop one. Refram-
ing without a system of communication accomplishes nothing.
Reframing, as we discuss it in this book, is about honesty and
integrity. It is the opposite of spin and manipulation. It is about
bringing to consciousness the deepest of our beliefs and our modes of
understanding. It is about learning to express what we really believe
in a way that will allow those who share our beliefs to understand
what they most deeply believe and to act on those beliefs.
Framing is also about understanding those we disagree with
most. Tens of millions of Americans vote conservative. For the
most part they are not bad people or stupid people. Tey are people
who understand the world diferently and have a diferent view of
what is right.
All Politics Is Moral
When a political leader puts forth a policy or suggests how we should
act, the implicit assumption is that the policy or action is right, not
wrong. No political leader says, “Here’s what you should do. Do it
because it is wrong—pure evil, but do it.” No political leader puts
forth policies on the grounds that the policies don’t matter. Political
prescriptions are assumed to be right. Te problem is that diferent
political leaders have diferent ideas about what is right.
xi v • THE ALL NEW DON’ T THI NK OF AN ELEPHANT!
All politics is moral, but not everybody operates from the same
view of morality. Moreover, much of moral belief is unconscious. We
are ofen not even aware of our own most deeply held moral views.
As we shall see, the political divide in America is a moral divide.
We need to understand that moral divide and understand what the
progressive and conservative moral systems are.
Most importantly, a great many people operate on diferent—and
inconsistent—moral systems in diferent areas of their lives. Te
technical term is “biconceptualism.”
Here the brain matters even more. Each moral system is, in the
brain, a system of neural circuitry. How can inconsistent systems
function smoothly in the same brain? Te answer is twofold: (1)
mutual inhibition (when one system is turned on the other is turned
of); and (2) neural binding to diferent issues (when each system
operates on diferent concerns).
Biconceptualism is central to our politics, and it is vital to under-
stand how it works. We will be discussing it throughout this book.
What Is Rationality?
The brain and cognitive sciences have radically changed our
understanding of what reason is and what it means to be rational.
Unfortunately, all too many progressives have been taught a false
and outdated theory of reason itself, one in which framing, meta-
phorical thought, and emotion play no role in rationality. Tis has
led many progressives to the view that the facts—alone—will set
you free. Progressives are constantly giving lists of facts.
Facts matter enormously, but to be meaningful they must be
framed in terms of their moral importance. Remember, you can only
understand what the frames in your brain allow you to understand.
If the facts don’t ft the frames in your brain, the frames in your
brain stay and the facts are ignored or challenged or belittled. We
will explore those frames in detail in the pages ahead.
It is by popular demand that this book is short and informal. It is
meant to be a practical guide both for citizen activists and for anyone
with a serious interest in politics. Tose who want a more systematic
REFRAMI NG I S SOCI AL CHANGE • x v
and scholarly treatment should read my books Moral Politics: How
Liberals and Conservatives Tink (second edition), Tinking Points,
Whose Freedom?, Te Political Mind, and Te Little Blue Book
(with Elisabeth Wehling). And for those just dying to read clearly
written 600-page academic books and hundreds of articles on both
political and academic topics, you can fnd them on my website:
www.georgelakof.com. But for a quick informative read and your
frst introduction to framing, start here.
It is vital—for us, for our country, and for the world—that
we understand the progressive values on which this country was
founded and that made it a great democracy. If we are to keep that
democracy, we must learn to articulate those values loud and clear.
If progressives are to win in the future, we must present a clear moral
vision to the country—a moral vision common to all progressives. It
must be more than a laundry list of facts, policies, and programs. It
must present a moral alternative, one traditionally American, one
that lies behind everything Americans are proud of.
Tis update of the original version of Don’t Tink of an Elephant!
is written in the service of that vision.
Enjoy!

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