GrokMart

Spanning the globe for insights into human behavior and persuasion.

12.01.2005

 

Don't Think of Richard Nixon

Admit it. You just did. Amazing, the power of suggestion, even a back-handed one.

Now, what are the words that come to mind about the late President? Tricky Dick? Watergate? Crook?

Richard Nixon's association with "crook" is a case study in framing, a persuasive method that was all the rage in liberal political circles in 2004. George Lakoff--cognitive linguist, professor at Cal-Berkeley, and activist--was upset with the way the Democrats handled the election cycles of 2002 and 2004. Although they used populist messages that should have appealed to the working class and middle class, they weren't reaching middle America. In Lakoff's mind, the Democrats' problems were all about metaphors.

According to Lakoff and other cognitive scientists, humans base their worldview on metaphor. If we come across some fact that agrees with our metaphoric view, we embrace it. Conversely, if a fact does not jibe with our metaphor, we ignore it or feel some hostility toward it.

In Lakoff's view, Republicans were speaking from a metaphor with which middle America could identify--he called it the "Strict Father" metaphor. The problem was, Democrats were using Republican language, so their messages were ineffective. Lakoff wrote his thin tome, "Don't Think of an Elephant," to help Democrats rethink their metaphors and their messaging.

Oftentimes, we're our own worst enemy in the arena of perception. Who was the originator of the word association between Nixon and crook? Nixon himself. His famous utterance, "I am not a crook," reinforced in most Americans' minds that he actually was a dirty, rotten politician. By using those words, Nixon was speaking the language of his detractors.

Hey, regardless of the words he chose, he would have likely been thrown out of office. But by using the word "crook" in relation to himself, he fell in to the metaphor of "corrupt leader" his opponents were using, and he cemented that as part of his legacy. Nixon, crook.

So the next time you want to change a mind or a heart, think not just about the words you're using but also the foundation of meaning that underlie those words.

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