If I tell you now not to think about an elephant, what will be the first thing that will come to your head? Yes. The fact that you are thinking about a pachyderm and its trunk right now is explained by cognitive science, and it is behind the war of facts and versions that we live today, with manipulated speeches that affect your life, mine’s and everyone else’s.
The subject gained special attention due to the recent advance of populist governments around the world. One of the researchers who best explains the concept is the American neuroscientist and linguist George Lakoff, in his book ‘Don’t Think of an Elephant!’ One of Lakoff’s main conclusions: denying a lie by presenting the truth is insufficient to change a person’s beliefs.
The phenomenon is known as “framing”. Lakoff explains that, according to this concept of cognitive science, we all have pre-conceived values that are framed in our unconscious.
He provides the example of the word “relief”. It is within a frame that brings immediate associations to our mind: for a relief to occur, there must be an affliction (something bad), someone afflicted (a “victim”) and a relieving (one who removes the affliction, a “hero”). All frames are activated by language and determine a reaction in our brain. What happens is that this reaction will always be unique and personal, based on our unconscious values and ideas, making the facts secondary to the frame. It means that if the facts do not fit into a frame, the frame resists, and the facts are discarded.
When translating it to our example: if someone says it will give you some relief and I deny that possibility for some reason (no matter what), I automatically become, in your head, a “villain” – because I am preventing that someone, a “hero”, to bring relief to you.
Imagine a government that says, for example, that it will promote “tax relief”. This sentence will activate the frame mentioned above, and from then on, anything I tell you “against” this relief, even if 100% based on facts, will have no effect. Worse: if I simply take a stand against “tax relief”, I will invoke this frame in your mind, automatically blocking your understanding of any argument I have on the subject, even if it is a valid one. “Even when you deny a frame, you activate that frame”, explains Lakoff. I started to apply this concept to everything I see and came to three controversial conclusions.
First: the shorthand side of journalism, a basic principle of the profession that gives voice to important people and transforms everything that these people say into news, deserves a review. A broad discussion to see if it still makes sense.
Important people have been using this amplifying power indiscriminately, with fewer and fewer limits, often taking the attention away from what really matters. They are classic diversionary maneuvers that follow the script “it doesn’t matter if what I say is not rational or even reasonable. If I awaken passions and mobilize people, I will conquer part of public opinion”. And we see the press, many times, publishing absurdities automatically, without question.
Second: the same press that gives voice to everything that important people say feels compelled to combat what was reverberated by itself when the message was absurd. And it creates a contradictory effect: “I give voice to something absurd because it is my professional obligation, as well as ‘resisting’ of what I’ve just published”.
The most striking example is the recent gay kissing HQ censorship at Bienal do Rio. From a personal point of view, I applauded the coverage of Folha de S. Paulo newspaper and dozens of other demonstrations against the censorship. But, from the communication technical point of view, I learned that I only did it because they fit my frame on the subject. In other words, from a technical point of view, Folha’s cover page probably worked with converts. And it probably had little effect to “reshape” the debate in different terms from those dictated by the Rio de Janeiro Mayor (who indeed preached to his converted ones, people who, unlike me, have gay kiss in a frame associated with negative values).
Third conclusion: doing journalism with the current technique has no longer generated the desired effect that the practice should have. Pointing out absurdities, lies and contradictions in speeches is insufficient to combat diversionary maneuvers. And that has been confusing many people’s heads.
To be effective, facts need to be framed in the right way. “Believing that presenting facts in a competent manner is enough for the citizen to ‘wake up’ is an illusion”, explains Lakoff.
What to do? A good start is stop chasing your own elephant tails.