Why do you think that?

Posted 7/30/10

I've written in the past about what we should do when we learn that something we have long believed turns out not to be true. (In brief, strive to …

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Why do you think that?


I've written in the past about what we should do when we learn that something we have long believed turns out not to be true. (In brief, strive to change those beliefs to be more in line with reality. Doesn't that sound easy?)

But where do these beliefs come from in the first place? Why do we believe them?

On a personal level, according to the brain and linguistical research work of George Lakoff and others (see "Don't Think of an Elephant," and "The Political Brain") it all comes down to "framing."

Have you ever heard an argument where suddenly it's clear that one side is about to lose? Their evidence in tatters, their rhetoric shattered, you imagine that surely they will back down … but no.

It was never about the evidence.

When you knock down the supposed reason for their belief, another one immediately takes its place. The frame — which only sees what it is convinced must be true — remains.

Framing is really nothing more than a metaphor, a story that begins with the body, and winds up as a filter for all we understand. For instance, the love of the mother for the child creates a literal sense of warmth in the child, a warmth centered in the heart. We believe it because we feel it.

From there, it's only a short hop to to saying that your heart belongs to your mother — until, of course, someone else generates even more heat.

On a political level, it gets a little more complicated. But maybe not much more.

Lakoff argues that both conservatives and liberals base their political philosophies on the idea of the family, that earliest and most formative of social experiences.

Lakoff says that conservatives have the frame of the strict father.

Liberals believe in the nurturing mother. Each of those frames, those stories, then plays out in a host of ways.

The strict father believes in right and wrong, reward and punishment.

The nurturing mother believes in kindness and meanness, in learning and forgiveness. Those orientations can be directly tied to individual willingness to support law enforcement, or social services.

In the political realm there is something else: repetition over time.

I was also doing some reading about the early development of think tanks. (See William F. Buckley's "The John Birch Society and me," and the Heritage Foundation's "The origins of the modern American conservative movement," both articles freely available on the Web.)

Following the failure of Barry Goldwater's run for the presidency in 1964, conservatives of the time adopted a simple approach: put together a list of core beliefs. Keep talking about them. Set up institutions that could be contacted by media looking for quotes on "the other side."

The ascendancy of the conservative mindset, the reflexive belief that "lowering taxes" is good, no matter what they pay for, can be directly attributed to that strategy. It took almost half a century of more or less consistently applied effort. Changing beliefs takes time.

So why do we believe what we believe?

Because we try to make sense of the world. Because we are hooked by good stories, and the stories we hear early enough, and often enough, begin to sound right.

Some of those story tellers are "experts." And next week, I'll tackle this question: can they be trusted?

Jamie LaRue is director of Douglas County Libraries. LaRue's Views are his own.


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