Red, Gray & Blue
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This PowerPoint, Bibliography and Websites are the resources associated with a speech given at the Lunch with League on February 19, 2010 and at subsequent presentations.

Spin: Your Brain on Politics—How Political Strategists Manipulate and Frame the Political Message (Part 1)

Today, our topic is spin—and your brain. We have a notion of what “Spin” is—and we do a bit of spinning. Bill Press in his book Spin This says: “Spin is a way of fudging the truth without trampling on it. Politicians are most often associated with spin, but they're not the only ones. Everybody spins: teachers, preachers, salespeople, CEOs, … We even spin ourselves.”


Let me give you an example of spin. The Russians being a proud culture believed their automotive technology to be superior to all others. So they challenged the United States to race their best car against Russia’s best car. The American car won the race. However, the Russian newspaper reported it this way: "In a recent motor race, the Russian car finished in second place, while the best the Americans could do with their inferior product was finish next to last.”


Spin, when recognized, may be harmless. However, spin all too often does trample on the truth—and worse yet, we believe the spin, and it distorts our opinions, our decisions, and the way we vote.


But to understand why spin in its various guises works, you first need to understand how your brain works—as opposed to how you might assume it works.


I’ll be drawing on information I have acquired from readings in the fields of Cognitive Research, Linguistics, and Psychological Research and adding my personal observations and opinions.  I would like you to take the things I say—not as truths—but as possible explanations for how you—and other people think—and why you—and they--make certain decisions, especially in public policy and voting.


I am not a scientist, so I may oversimplify some of the scientific data.  My purpose is to provide provocative ideas to help us be better at understanding human and political behavior and more effective in framing political discourse. I’ll not be going into the specifics of the underlying research, but I will cover some theories and concepts. I’ll also provide a bibliography of my sources.


We like to believe that we are rational and logical people. It’s just those other folks who don’t have it together. Who are a few cards short of a full deck. Who aren’t the sharpest pencils in the drawer. However, cognitive scientists conclude that we are not as rational as we think we are.


To begin with, our brains are prewired for physical survival and dominance. The four basic survival instincts they say are






These four basic emotions rule because they determine our survival. When the cave dweller saw the predator approaching, he needed to act quickly to survive. He didn’t have time to stop and analyze the situation.


When I visited Alaska, Park Rangers pointed out there were different kinds of bears. There were grizzly bears who had a hump on their back. Then there were other bears—who could be black or brown—and who were usually smaller than the grizzlies. They warned us about bear encounters. They described the different tactics we should use depending on whether it was a grizzly or a brown bear—or if it was a mama bear. I remember thinking there was no way I would stop to figure out what species of bear I was facing.  Let me see now—does he have a hump? Or is he—a she? No, I’d likely react by either running for my life or stand frozen like a deer in the headlights.


Anyone who has a weight problem can attest to how strong the feeding instinct is—and how hard to break. And, we’ve all heard the expression, sex sells. Despite all kinds of societal constraints humans keep on fighting—and reproducing.


So let’s do a quick and dirty overview of your complicated brain to understand how we’re wired.


Your Brain: Structure


Deep in your brain is a tiny section called the amygdala. According to cognitive scientists the amygdala controls our emotions and mediates our fears, anxieties and anger. Humans retain what some call the reptilian brain or reptilian complex which encompasses the amygdala and the limbic system. This part of the brain is our emotional or instinctual brain. We all have this mechanism and it is the oldest part of our evolutionary brain.


Now for the guys, I know some of you believe only women have emotions—but you need to recognize that anger—and manly posturing—are emotions.


This emotional brain has a direct connection with our senses. The sensual input is generated constantly and the instinctual brain creates a physiological response and an emotional reaction. All this happens below the conscious level. Those emotions instinctually either push us away from danger or toward reward. Only after having gone through this system do the prefrontal lobes of your conscious brain get the chance to interpret what is going on.


Your Brain: Input


So our brains are constantly bombarded with sensory information. However, only a fraction of that information ever reaches our consciousness. Our mind is not like a camera or a tape recorder imprinting everything we sense. The input to our brain and memory is heavily censored and then altered by brain processes. One of those censors is in the brainstem—known as the reticular activating system. Most of our moment-to-moment experiences pass rapidly into oblivion. We don’t see what we think we see because our input is heavily censored and altered before it reaches consciousness. That’s one explanation for why eyewitness testimony of the same event differs so much. It also suggests that the expression should be changed to “Believing is Seeing” rather than the other way round.


Some folks’ brains do less censoring than others—for example people with eidetic memories. And, it may be that autism results from a dysfunction of this censoring task.


Your Brain: Storage


Very few moments get encoded as memories. And even those memories get overwritten by new data. Our recollections are not accurate records but reconstructions of the past. Our instinctual brain, prewired for survival, registers highly emotional experiences the most strongly. Prolonged experiences also tend to stick with us. However, our recall of past events and data is selective and unreliable.


If you doubt that and have adult children, try this experiment. Have them tell you about their childhood. I’ve done it—and there’s no way that my children ever lived in the same house or experienced the same events as I did. Their recollection and my recollection are not even close.


Your Brain: Thinking


Some cognitive scientists estimate that 98 percent of thought is not conscious. They say most thought is reflexive, not reflective. That it’s beyond your conscious control. Your brain makes decisions for you that you are not consciously aware of. Those opinions you have, especially the ones you “feel” strongly about—come from the emotional brain.


Dr. Linda Elder of the Foundation for Critical Thinking says “…much of our thinking, left to itself, is biased, distorted, partial, uninformed or downright prejudiced.”


In the book “The Political Brain—Why we make up our minds without using our heads” Drew Westen says: “In politics, when reason and emotion collide, emotion invariably wins.” This is because feelings are millions of years older than the conscious thought processes we call “reason,” and they have been guiding behavior for far longer.


And to those of you listening to, or reading this, I want to remind you that this is as true of you—as it is of people in that “other political party.” 

Thomas Kida in the book “Don’t Believe Everything You Think,” says that we humans prefer stories, anecdotal information, to statistics or facts. Given the history of humankind that makes sense—long before we had written language or the internet, we told our history and preserved our tribal cultures in the form of stories and myths.


Think about some “stories” used in politics. In the last election there was “Joe the Plumber.”  Now Joe turned out to be someone other than we first thought, but it was a story with a moral about government taxation that Senator McCain latched onto. President Ronald Reagan told a story that framed how some people perceive the welfare rolls when he described a black welfare mother driving a Cadillac. Stories don’t have to be accurate to resonate with us—we instinctively grasp the underlying values and moral lessons inherent in such stories.


Kida also asserts that we are cause-seeking beings who see associations where none exist. We discount chance and coincidence.


The theory of global warming involves complex computer models tracking climate over a long period of time and reams of scientific data. Yet, we hear news pundits and our friends and neighbors saying about global warming, “what a crock, look at all that snow and ice out there. Does that look like global warming to you?”


Or, we take a complicated economic phenomenon like the recession--and we know—or think we know—exactly who the guilty party is who caused it. Of course, who gets the role of the villain depends on what political party you’re partial to.

Spin: Your Brain on Politics—How Political Strategists Manipulate and Frame the Political Message (Part 2)

In our first section, we looked at how our brain is constructed and works--or malfunctions. Now we continue with some of the theories about our mind that have been published by research psychologists, cognitive scientists and linguistics experts.

Our thinking is greatly oversimplified—we operate as if our labels of good, evil, efficient or inefficient can be applied wholesale to things as complex as government or corporations or the economy.


We have very faulty memories—we misremember things as true even though we have seen contradicting evidence, especially if the faulty memory tracks with our ideology and belief.


In her book, Blind Spots, Madeleine L. Van Hecke, PhD talks about why smart people do dumb things.  What you don’t know can hurt you. However, even worse, there is what we know, what we don’t know, and what we don’t know that we don’t know. And all those things we think we know. We start with a very spotted slate rather than a clean one—which makes it increasingly difficult to be open to new learning.


Dr. Hecke sees the “My Side Bias” as one of our biggest blind spots. We evolved as tribal beings which was necessary for our early survival.  The long term effect of that, however, is that we tend to be ethnocentric. The result is that we believe our nation, culture, religion, political party, class, race, gender or species is superior to all others. Our ethnocentric mind makes it difficult to see issues from the point of view of those very different from us—except, of course, to conclude that they must be a little crazy to believe or act as they do. Patriotism, for example, sometimes takes the form of “we’re always right.” Either you’re with us or you’re against us. Love it or leave it.


In the matter of “truth” we are conditioned to rely on others to tell us what to believe—our parents, our church, schools, political party, friends or the media.  Furthermore, we don’t attempt to pursue the truth because we most often think we “already know.” We seldom ask ourselves the question, “How do I know what I think I know.” Pursuit of truth is not easy. There’s the biblical saying, you shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free. There’s also an updated version: You shall know the truth and the truth will make you free, but first it may make you pissed off and angry.


Social psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson in their book, Mistakes Were Made, but not by me, ask the question, “Why do we justify foolish beliefs, bad decisions, and hurtful acts.” “Why do we see hypocrisy in others, but not in ourselves?”


Their answer is a characteristic of our thinking called Cognitive Dissonance. It’s what your brain does to “make you right—and others wrong” or as they call it “the engine of self-justification.” Let’s say a person holds two ideas, beliefs or opinions that are psychologically inconsistent. Like, for instance, I know smoking is bad for my health, but I want to smoke. Such cognitive dissonance produces mental discomfort, ranging from minor pangs to deep anguish. Extreme dissonance can lead to things like PTSD.


What our minds will do for us to overcome this discomfort is find a way to resolve the dissonance—and make us right.  So for the smoker, the mind may say, well I know that they say it’s bad, but my uncle smoked and lived well into his 90’s. Or, I’ll gain weight if I smoke. Or, I’ll smoke for now because I’m under a lot of stress—and I’ll quit next month, or next year, or…


Dissonance theory also posits that faced with new information, if it is consonant with our existing beliefs, we will automatically think it is well founded and useful. On the other hand, our reflexive reaction to dissonant information is to consider it biased or foolish. This reaction is automatic—unless we stop to think and question.


Another concept about how we think is called Confirmation  Bias. That concept says we will find a way to criticize, distort, or dismiss dissonant information which goes contrary to our opinions. We will find minor flaws and magnify them into major reasons why it is wrong.


In the Mistakes book they identify what they call the “Pyramid of Choice.” It arises out of cognitive dissonance. Say a person does something bad or hurtful. This goes contrary to their self-image of being a “good person.” So the mind will find a justification for the hurtful act. This pyramid of choice can start a cycle of self-justification.


For all of the dissonance theories, I am sure you “thought of someone” who does that. The difficult part to accept is that “we all do it.” It’s just much harder to recognize in ourselves, because our mind is a co-conspirator in hiding it from us.


We can see prejudice in others, but not in ourselves. Yet, we all “prejudge” simply because that’s the way our mind works. Our mind processes information in “categories.” Unfortunately those categories, being mental shortcuts, also lead to stereotypes.


However, I know that I am a good person and only bad people are prejudiced or racist. Therefore, my dislikes or negative opinions about a group or an individual are rational and well-founded. Or, I simply deny to others—and to myself—that I have such negative opinions. Then, I’m shocked and so might others be, when in a moment of high emotion or under the influence, I blurt out an obviously biased, prejudiced or racist statement. Again, there are degrees of bias—but if a person totally denies they have any, they are probably deluding themselves.


A neurologist, Dr. Robert Burton, examines the notion of being certain you are right. In his book, On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not, he tells us that “knowing” is a mental or an emotional sensation, not a product of reason. Based on neuroscience, certainty derives from the emotional parts of our brain, not the reasoning part. The feeling of certainty stems from primitive areas of the brain independent of conscious reflection.  He says the feeling of certainty overpowers and outsmarts the intellect.

Dr. Burton goes further saying that based on brain scans, most decisions are made for us by our unconscious and only after the decision has been made does the conscious make up rational sounding reasons for these decisions. From recent research, cognitive scientists question just how much “free will” we actually have.


In our mistaken certainty, we also forget that the vast majority of what we take in as sensory data then go through our filters and gets “interpreted.” We generalize about huge abstractions like government, the economy, political parties and ideologies, nations, war and so on. Then we take those and make judgments and create “meanings” for things that have no inherent “meaning.”


Closer to home example: My husband didn’t remember my birthday, so that means—he doesn’t love me, he’s a jerk, or he’s very busy at work, or…. We make these interpretations or meanings more real for ourselves by then seeking out “agreement” of others. But, inherently, the act has no meaning. It is not a concrete reality or a fact that can be proven.


Politicians create huge and lasting “meanings” which we often accept and internalize. For example, government is not a solution to our problem, government is the problem.


Remember, we started this discussion with the question of spin—how is it done and why is it so effective? And the answers that we are finding, one by one, is that it works because of the characteristics of our mind and our thinking.


Advertising and politics have both taken advantage of these characteristics. Dan Ariely says we are Predictably Irrational, also the title of his book. One trait that he says is hardwired in humans—and even in apes—is something called reciprocal altruism.  It works this way—you do a favor for me—then I am much more inclined to do a favor for you. Returning a favor is so engrained in us, we often don’t notice. Why do you think all those requests for your donations include little gifts—name labels, calendars. It isn’t the money amount that matters, just the fact that once we accept a gift we are more likely to feel obligated to return the favor. If you’ve ever attended a fundraiser by the wealthy, you would know that one of the big attractions are the monogrammed bags or jackets given in drawings or as gifts for attendance—things of minimal monetary value compared to what the rich can purchase for themselves, but essential to holding a high dollar charity event and getting attendees to open their wallets.


However, reciprocal altruism goes even further. If I first do a favor for you, I am more inclined to do more favors for you. Here is where cognitive dissonance plays a role. Let’s say I did a favor for someone who really didn’t deserve it. My mind will reassure me that I was “right” to do such a favor—thus establishing a justification for additional favors. This reciprocal altruism plays heavily in the game of politics—campaign contributions and those even seemingly insignificant favors do influence behavior even if the politician themselves are unaware of it. For judges and politicians to claim that such relationships of friendship and money don’t bias their opinions—is self delusional.


Cognitive psychologist and linguist George Lakoff says that if you believe in the rational voter, you will give people facts and figures and you will point out where their interests lie. You think they will reach the right conclusions and vote consistent with their self interests—and you will be dead wrong.


The answer, he says, is in the way we use language—in the study of linguistics. For his classes he performs a little experiment. Let’s try it now. Don’t think of an elephant.


Were you successful in not thinking of an elephant? Of course not. Words are powerful. Words automatically activate metaphors and frames that are pre-existing in our brains. I say elephant—and your mind comes up with whatever you know about elephants—what they look like, stories you’ve heard about them—or maybe you thought of an elephant in the frame known as Republican?

Frames are an important concept in linguistics. How a word or an issue or a person is framed will determine your opinions about them and your actions toward them.


Let’s explore some framing of words. An example, the word moral. The word describes an abstract concept. Yet in our use of language it has a vertical orientation. Moral is up—immoral is down. It also has sensory connections—moral is pure; immoral is disgusting—we associate both purity and disgust with taste and smell.


How you frame things determines your relationship to them. For example, take the word taxes. For some, taxes are something that you’ve earned that is taken away from you. But, an equally valid frame would be that taxes are something you contribute for the benefits you have been given and for the common good. Which frame you give them determines your opinions on a great many political issues.


We understand ourselves and other people inside of cultural linguistic narratives. Campaign strategists use frames—positive ones for their candidate; negative ones for the opponent. It works because we automatically--without conscious control--see people in terms of our own narratives—or within those created for us by their campaign and the press.


Think about recent presidential candidates. What frames were created for them? Interestingly enough, we will likely remember the negative frames more readily than the positive frames.


For example, what are some possible frames for Hillary Clinton? For some, she is the long-suffering wife of Bill Clinton. Another frame is she’s the model of the competent, deserving woman. And for those who most strongly oppose her, she’s a calculating bitch.


Lakoff has a theory that the major difference between Republicans and Democrats. He says that both use family as a metaphor for government. But the family metaphors differ. Conservatives adhere to a strict father family model with concern for crime and punishment, tough love, strict rules for society and strong military for defense. Liberals, he says, prefer the nuturant parent model. That model values social justice, rehabilitation and tolerance. There are overlaps between the two, but Lakoff theorizes that it explains what often seem to be inexplicable differing points of view.


Another new concept helpful to understanding spin and how our minds work is laid out in a book called Virus of the Mind by Richard Brodie. The virus he refers to is called a Meme which is defined as a cultural idea or item transmitted by repetition from mind to mind in a manner like the biological transmission of genes. The term was first coined by British biologist Richard Dawkins. He defines a meme as meaning “to imitate or to copy.”


I found the notion useful as a way to understand how certain ideas get spread around and replicated. For example, when I started working in government over a half century ago, it was considered an honorable profession and respected. During the last three decades, however, that image has gradually eroded until there is a negative imagery of government—and the civil servants who work there. Witness the recent spate of negative articles about public pensions.


These memes get distributed by numerous sources—the media: newspapers, radio, television the Internet and person-to-person. You could call these all “Meme Machines.” Some researchers recently—who must have too much time on their hands—actually counted memes in what they call a meme tracker. They looked at the most cited phrases about the economy over a several month period, who originally said them and how many times they were repeated. For example, the phrase “we will rebuild, we will recover—“ first stated by President Obama—was repeated 4,679 times within a several month period. No wonder our brains get saturated with certain ideas.


We’ve explored how our brains work and some of its shortcomings. Now we turn to the people who study those quirks—and use them for the purpose of manipulation.


First came the advertisers. They’ve been in the business of puffery and spin for several centuries. Back in the 1940’s they started to really get serious about determining what works. They learned first of all that we buy based on feelings or emotions. Remember, that’s the most active part of our brain.


Think about it. How much research did you do in deciding what toothpaste to buy? Do you buy it because you know it has the formula most likely to prevent teeth decay or gum disease? Or because it tastes good? Or, just because it’s the one you’ve used for years and it’s now a totally automatic decision? If it’s the latter, you have fallen into the category of “brand affinity.” Being creatures of habit and wanting to save brain energy, most of our decisions are automatic. And if advertisers can brand your mind with their label, you’re a done deal.


Puffery and spin have been there forever. Remember the old snake oil salesman with the remedy that cured everything? Or, how about—“it takes a lickin’ and keeps on ticking?” Timex commercials of old still bounce around in my head. Because of repetition—repetition works. Think of all the jingles you still remember.


Let’s try out a few: Double your pleasure, double your fun…Doublemint Gum

See the USA in your…….Chevrolet 1978

A little dab’ll do ya…..Brylcreem, mid 1950’s

So easy a caveman can do it……Geico

Have it your way—Burger King


We’re used to spin—we’ve been spun all our lifetimes.


So, especially with the arrival of television campaigns, the political consultants adopted advertising research and methods. Think about it—campaigns use emotion, branding, puffery and repetition.


They also used some new tricks. They told their clients to go negative. Why? Because people like a good fight—and negative ads work. Instead of focusing on facts and issues, they peddled spin—their emphasis on character instead of policy. And they did all that because it worked. You may not watch Jerry Springer, but thousands of Americans do. During my browsing and “intellectual” research on the Internet, I find myself sucked into reading gossip and conflict pieces. We are all fascinated by other people’s foibles and flaws. Think Tiger Woods—and the media feed it.


Alpha Dogs by James Harding talks about the Americans who turned political spin into a global business.  Normally, the names of those Americans are not well known, except perhaps for George W. Bush’s strategist, Karl Rove. But there are others who are famous in the industry. They publish handbooks and strategy for campaigns featuring words that work. Frank I. Luntz is one of those. He says, “it’s not what you say, it’s what people hear.Ralph I. Luntz


You may not have heard of Luntz, but you’ve heard the words that work for which he is responsible. He specializes in message creation, branding and framing. In his playbook, the estate or inheritance tax became the “death tax.” We now “explore for energy” instead of drilling for oil. Tax cuts? No more, now there is “tax relief.” And, global warming became “climate change.”


If you think about it, much of the political dialogue of today is framed in such terms. We’re not for or against abortion—we’re pro-life or pro-choice. Republicans stand for Family Values while they refer with disdain to the tax and spend liberals and the liberal press. We didn’t declare war on a nation; we’re engaged in a war on terror. Liberals tout the merits of renewable energy and sustainable communities. We see the economic crisis in terms of Wall Street vs. Main Street. All of these terms were “framed” by strategists to fit their political aims.


We said earlier that spin isn’t necessarily bad, but today’s politicians have gone further astray. Both sides now put out information that is patently false.


For example—on partisan ads and in the Michael Moore movie we were told that Bush permitted the bin Laden family to fly out after 9/11 while the airspace was still closed. No—they didn’t fly out until a week to 10 days later; some were questioned. We believed it because we knew the Bush family had Saudi oil connections.


In the 2004 election conservatives ran an ad that seemed to say John Kerry voted to cut intelligence after 9/11. The ad featured wolves and sheep and said: “Even after the first terrorist attack on America—John Kerry and the liberals in Congress voted to slash America’s intelligence operations. By six billion dollars—cuts so deep they would have weakened America’s defenses.


The first attack they were referring to was actually the first World Trade Center bombing—in 1993. And it wasn’t six billion – it was one billion over five years, representing only 3.7% of intelligence budget. That same year Bush’s CIA Director had recommend 20% cuts. Kerry had supported increases for several years prior to 9/11 and after.


Why would they use falsehoods that can be disproven? Wouldn’t that turn people against them? Apparently not. They use them because—they work. First of all, they use them because we tend to believe negative information—or we may want to believe it of someone we don’t like.


Second, this negative information creates an emotional memory in your reptilian brain with the limbic system and the amygdale. Those lower brain etchings are the ones that stick with us the longest. Especially if we only listen to radio or television that reflects our political biases, we may never hear the truth. And, even if we do—our memory is often faulty and we are more likely to remember the emotional memory over the rational one.


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