On Thinking and Not Thinking

Sep 30 2016

Proclaimed as “The All New” Don’t Think of an Elephant, George Lakoff’s classic book has been substantially rewritten and updated to reflect contemporary issues in political debate and recent electoral history. The original book was a must read for anyone interested in behavioural science, communication (or politics) and the important lessons from the first book remain, updated and expanded in this even better and more valuable book.The author explains who framing is all about ideas, and putting the ideas before policy to proactively shape political (and other) debates. The focus of the book is in demonstrating how progressive politicians often value rational argument over emotional frames, to the detriment of their electoral success (as we can see all too clearly in 2016). The lessons to learn are that vision and “frames” are far more important than specific policy items.

Frames are mental structures that shape the way that we “see” and interpret the world. They are not ideas or slogans, but rather some of the unconscious associations that are shared by people and that can be leveraged to create more powerful ideas and ultimately change behaviour using existing beliefs.

As George Layoff points out, it’s not bad or unhelpful to have rational arguments to support a point of view. However, it is folly to expect people to accept the logic of your argument if it conflicts with their previously held ideas and values, especially when they are unconscious. You can only understand new information that your existing mental “frames” allow you to understand, and if new facts don’t fit existing frames of reference, then they will be ignored (or challenged or dismissed).

The title of the book is straightforward and based on how the author opens his student classes. On being challenged to “don’t think of an elephant”, they are simply unable to get the idea of an elephant out of their heads (and I’m sure you are the same, as am I). George Layoff uses the example of Richard Nixon during the Watergate crisis who felt compelled to tell the nation, “I am not a crook”, which had exactly the opposite of the intended effect on his audience by confirming in their minds that he was.

George Layoff discusses many more practical political case studies, such as the mental effect of pairing the word “relief” to the word “tax” and cites many specific examples from recent political discourse. At 160 pages, the book is short, easy to read and offers fascinating insights into how our, minds work, what is important in framing communications and how you can get across your ideas in more powerful and persuasive ways, by first understanding the underlying mental “frames” that your audience already have.


Don’t Think of an Elephant!: Know your values and frame the debate by George Lakoff

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