Psychology of Change

Message Framing: The Secret Weapon the Right Has Mastered & Left Completely Ignored

Ever wonder why Republicans would rename inheritance tax the death tax? A quirky accident? Joking around? No, they do such renaming and labeling with great intention and by doing so continually divert, rebrand and most importantly reframe not just language but political debate – and voting – with great effectiveness. Disciplined use of language is an essential tactic for long-term strategic goals.

Take a moment to note your emotional response to the words inheritance and death. When one hears the word inheritance it brings to mind images of unearned, free wealth and the thought of taxing some of that seems reasonable. Now, note your emotional reaction to death and your reaction to the notion of taxing someone “after they die”. That simple change in wording – emotional framing – has led to changes in tax law that have made it possible for the privileged to hoard and pass along even more unearned wealth to their nepo heirs.

What Republicans do is grounded on the fact that neuroscience has proven about 98% of our decision making is emotionally based; reactive, rather than logical. Ad wizards on Madison Avenue know that and so did Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s minister of propaganda. In one of the darkest ironies of history, Goebbles learned the basics of message massage and manipulation from the work of Edward Bernays, nephew of Sigmund Freud – both Jewish – who wrote the book “Propaganda”.

Imagine an elephant

What we are talking about is neurolinguistics. Retired University of California Berkeley professor George Lakoff showed how the left could create effective messaging in his brilliant short book “Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate” (2004).

The title itself is an example of how neurolinguistics work. When you hear or see the word elephant, what immediately pops to mind? An elephant of course! Now you may envision a noble African elephant with magnificent gleaming tusks and I may have Disney’s Dumbo in mind, but we are both thinking and reacting to elephant. In the same moment, our minds and emotions are aligned and framed around the subject of elephant and receptive to messaging related to the wonderful beasts.

In his cheeky 2023 book, “Socialism…Seriously: A Brief Guide to Surviving the 12st Century”, Danny Katch gives a real-life example of how the future of all life on the planet may literally hang on mastery of neurolinguistic message framing.

“How the hell can we organize a historic fight against ecological collapse using pleasantries like climate change and global warming? … I suggest we follow the lead of Muscogee scholar Daniel Wildcat and call it ‘global burning.’ After all, Wildcat asks, what else makes sense for a process that starts with the burning of fossil fuels and ends with flames engulfing entire ecosystems?” (p. 26)

An interesting footnote to Katch’s observation. The very term climate change was a neurolinguistic frame conjured up in 2001 for the fossil fuel industry by conservative campaign wizard Frank Luntz to soften the emotional reality of the deadly nature of their industry. In recent years, Luntz has awakened to the catastrophic reality of global burning and apologized for that earlier work and helped guide conservation groups with their messaging.

Our lives are on the line

This is critical stuff to understand in communicating political issues and causes. As far right Republicans have shown: with it you control the debate and outcome, and – as the Democrats continually demonstrate – without it you are continually playing a bumbling game of catch-up.

Neurolinguistics can be used to ram through a brutal fascist state, or to protect individual freedom and justice in a fair and humane system.

If you are involved in political movement work, it is essential to understand basic neurolinguistics to make your messaging effective and every precious nickel of your tiny budget hyperventilate and scream. Take some time to watch this interview with George Lakoff and create a book club of activists to read, study and put into practice the tools from “Don’t Think of an Elephant”.

Time is short. The job is big. Our lives are on the line.

Mark Taylor

Begin With The ‘Why’ of ‘What’ You Do To Bring About Change

Simon Sinek offers a powerful, simple model for how leaders inspire action, beginning with an understanding of what he calls the “Golden Circle”, at the heart of which is the question of “Why?”. The essential motivation, vision, values and cause lie at the heart of the circle.

As Sinek notes, “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. …It’s those who start with why who have the ability to inspire those around them or find those who inspire them.”

Sinek lays out his simple model of change in this 18-minute Ted Talk and his book “Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action”, which contains powerful, practical information for leaders from the community level on up.

TheHidden Brain’ Podcast: The Snowball Effect

Why do some companies become household names, while others flame out? How do certain memes go viral? And why do some social and political movements take off and spread, while others fizzle? Today on the show, we talk with sociologist Damon Centola about social contagion, and how it can be harnessed to build a better world.

Link to 55-minute NPR audio:

All original art and photos are available for free use by progressive groups.
Visit: “Free Art for Change” page.

Scroll to Top