Why do Some of us Hold Beliefs That are not Based in Reality? And What to do About it.

Hammering conservatives with the science and grim predictions of gloom and doom repeatedly has not worked and will not work any more than it works for conservatives to try to convince liberals that climate change is a hoax using conservative values and beliefs. Evidence shows that most conservatives put very little faith in science, data, and climate models. In fact, research shows the more conservatives are bombarded with science, the more stubbornly they resist listening.

Words like “green”, “climate”, and “science” may be liberal lexicon but they are conversation-stoppers for many conservatives. Why do conservatives tend to deny the long-established data and conclusions from over 90 percent of climate scientists? If they don’t believe the unbiased experts, who then, do conservatives believe in and trust?

In many cases, humans identify with opinions of friends, family, and politically-oriented personalities in their clan more than they relate to facts from scientists they don’t know. Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker says that it is human nature for people to ally themselves with their peer group. He said, “People are embraced or condemned according to their beliefs, so one function of the mind may be to hold beliefs that bring the belief-holder the greatest number of allies, protectors, or disciples, rather than beliefs that are factually true.”1 This is one of the reasons that many people cling to beliefs that don’t necessarily have a basis in reality. But it gets much more intriguing than that.

Another renowned cognitive psychologist and linguist George Lakoff tells us that conservative thinking Americans are more likely to be persuaded by moral issues that speak to patriotism, freedom, individual responsibility, economic opportunity, security and group loyalty. These values are often a moral basis for making decisions among conservatives. Why is this so?

Lakoff believes how we are raised influences how we experience the world and therefore our political beliefs and the world. He says children who have an upbringing with a strict-parent family model become conservative adults. Whereas children who grow up with a nurturant-parent family model become liberal adults. Let’s look closer at these conclusions.

In a strict, rule-oriented household children are taught discipline, obedience, respect for authority, and self-reliance using the fear of punishment. By contrast, in a more nurturant family environment where the main goal is caring for and about children, nurturing parents lead to children who are more nurturing, and obedience comes from love and respect of their parents. As a result, adults from nurturing parents mature with different value systems than adults from strict parents.

Therefore, a strict upbringing leads to a tendency to respect the ideals of tradition, self-discipline, responsibility, authority, character, enterprise, prosperity, social hierarchies, military patriotism, and punishment to name a few. Conservative frames are very different than liberal frames and maybe we shouldn’t expect them to embrace the science.

The nuturant parent, by contrast, encourages children toward personal freedom to try things and a respect for children’s inherent intelligence. They believe kids can and should be allowed to explore their environment, offering guidance. Crying children are picked up because the parent wants the child to feel safe and supported, believing if her needs are met, she will be more confident when facing challenges. The nurturant parent believes the child should ultimately develop their own self-discipline, self-connection, age-appropriate house chores, limited allowance, discussion of feelings and ideas with others.

Therefore, a nurturing upbringing includes ideals such as empathy, interdependence, equality, co-operation, communication, and legitimate authority. They believe that life should be a level playing field and the government should protect individual liberty and stop the destruction of the environment if necessary.

Of course these two different parenting models are seldom pure but they can produce adults that tend to lean left, and see and do things one way, or right, in which they see and do everything through a different lens. And these different liberal and conservative lenses result in people framing the same issue or event very differently. They can be seen as different cultural identities.

Lakoff says,

“Reason is actually 98% unconscious. Frames are the unconscious neural circuits that define how we think and talk. They are conceptual structures made up of metaphors, narratives, and emotions, and they are physically part of the brain. We cannot avoid framing. The only question is whose frames are being activated in the brains of the public?”2

Lakoff explains how organized conservative groups have set up an incredible infrastructure for framing issues in ways that appeal to conservative morality. They use list-serves and communication networks that perpetuate their principles that they portray as factual information. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the Leadership Institute have both been training people in conservative moral messaging for 20 years. Ultimately, according to Lakoff, this creates confusion over many issues like sustainability.

ALEC touts itself as America’s largest nonpartisan, voluntary membership organization of state legislators dedicated to the principles of limited government, free markets, and federalism. The Leadership Institute says they are in the business of training conservatives to be activists. Unlike liberals who base their activism on science and data, these conservative groups base their training on moral arguments.

To make matters worse, nonpartisan scientists, many of whom avoid public appearances, would rather be doing their research than publicly reporting it. They rarely have training in framing moral issues, let alone pontificating on fields outside of their own. When they report data they tend to do it like they conduct their research. Scientifically. Lakoff had an example.

“Here’s a story. I’m at the Aspen Institute in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina. Gore and Kerry are there, but the smartest guy in the room is Ronald Reagan’s chief strategist, who was partly progressive on environmental issues. Anyway, the scientist gets up there and gives an excellent science lecture. A reporter asks him, “Did global warming cause Hurricane Katrina?” A scientist cannot say that there was direct causation, but what he should have done was explain the chain of events and then string it together to show how Hurricane Katrina was systemically caused by global warming. You have to connect the dots for your audience.”3

Here is another example of how conservative framing worked when Lakoff says liberals missed the moral argument when selling the Affordable Care Act. Liberals used all kinds of arguments citing statistics of the uninsured, the costs, etc. which are all good policy arguments but the public knows nothing about policy details. As a result the public was not influenced much by the liberal argument.

Conservatives responded with threats of the “government takeover” and “death panels”, that would come from the Affordable Care Act. These made scary sound bites and resonated quickly with those who are fearful of the government. Lakoff maintains that liberals should have used a moral argument that your health is freedom and it is a patriotic issue that is more dangerous than terrorism.

In one article, Lakoff states.

“Health means freedom. If you have a serious illness or injury and cannot get it treated, your freedom will be limited in many ways. Your physical freedom: you may no longer have the freedom to move around. Your economic freedom: you may not be able to work or your medical bills may impoverish you. Your emotional freedom: you will not be free to live a happy life. Health is, therefore, a moral issue of the highest order. And it is a patriotic issue. Health security is a problem for far more Americans than military security. Your security is far more likely to be threatened by the lack of treatment for illness and injury than by any likely terrorist attack.”3

A reframed moral argument for freedom and security would have been far more likely to influence conservatives to support the affordable health care act than giving them abstract acronyms and data to digest. And health freedom could have been used to frame climate action but unfortunately it wasn’t.

A recent example of failing to engage a conservative moral argument is the 2018 attempt in the U.S. Congress to pass the “Green New Deal”. By choosing that name, the liberal sponsors of this bill guaranteed that conservative constituents would hate it. They might have been wiser to choose a name that conservative lawmakers and their constituents would identify with and respect. A better choice might have been to call it the “The National Security And Freedom Energy Act”. If that were the case the sponsors of the bill might have found some neutral ground that both Republicans and Democrats would support.

If we can learn to listen and speak to those uncontested values that we all cherish instead of only the liberal moral values, we will at least be on the same playing field, even if it isn’t level. That would not only make sense from a linguistic point of view but also as a diplomatic strategy. Maybe it will always be us and them. But we are still free to work together.

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  1. Pinker, Steven. Language, Cognition, and Human Nature: Selected Articles. Oxford University Press, 2015.
  2. Lakoff, George. Don’t Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate ; the Essential Guide for Progressives. Chelsea Green Publ., 2004.
  3. Clark, Anna M. “George Lakoff to Green Marketers: Use the F-Word.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 27 Aug. 2013,www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/george-lakoff-green-marketing.

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Author of Vermont’s Ebenezer Allen: Patriot, Commando and Emancipator by Arcadia/The History Press, University of Vermont EdD.

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