The ALL NEW Don't Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate

By George Lakoff
Chelsea Green Publishing, November 30, 2013, $15.00 and Canadian Dimension will be hosting renowned cognitive linguist and author George Lakoff in Toronto this Saturday April 18 for an inspiring all-day symposium. For tickets to this exclusive event, please register here. For a taste of Lakoff, consider coming to his evening lecture on Elections, Activism and Beyond.

What are the issues that define our future? Increasingly they are becoming inequality, climate change, immigration and health care. With the Harper conservatives taking a vicious right-wing approach to every policy they propose, Canadian progressives need to be alert this coming election.

Luckily, George Lakoff has returned with an updated edition of his bestselling Don’t Think of an Elephant, which discusses new strategies for political framing and delves deeper into the worldviews and histories of progressives and conservatives.

Progressives want to win this election. Read in this excerpt how Lakoff thinks they can get there.


Reframing Is Social Change

We think with our brains. We have no choice. It may seem that certain politicians think with other parts of their anatomy. But they too think with their brains. Why does this matter for politics? Because all thought is physical. Thought is carried out by neural circuits in the brain. We can only understand what our brains allow us to understand. The deepest of those neural structures are relatively fixed. They don’t change readily or easily. And we are mostly unconscious of their activity and impact.

In fact, about 98 percent of what our brains are doing is below the level of consciousness. As a result, we may not know all, or even most, of what in our brains determines our deepest moral, social, and political beliefs. And yet we act on the basis of those largely unconscious beliefs.

My field — cognitive science — has found ways to study unconscious, as well as conscious, modes of thought. As a cognitive scientist, my job is to help make the unconscious conscious, to find out and let the world know what is determining our social and political behavior. I believe that such knowledge can lead to positive social and political change. Why? Because what goes on in people’s brains matters.

Do we have to go to the neural level to understand our politics?

In some cases, yes. Diving that deep will be important, and we will discuss the brain when necessary. But, on the whole, the most important brain structures for our politics can be studied from the perspective of the mind. They are called “frames.”


Frames are mental structures that shape the way we see the world. As a result, they shape the goals we seek, the plans we make, the way we act, and what counts as a good or bad outcome of our actions. In politics our frames shape our social policies and the institutions we form to carry out policies. To change our frames is to change all of this. Reframing is social change.

You can’t see or hear frames. They are part of what we cognitive scientists call the “cognitive unconscious” — structures in our brains that we cannot consciously access, but know by their consequences. What we call “common sense” is made up of unconscious, automatic, effortless inferences that follow from our unconscious frames. We also know frames through language. All words are defined relative to conceptual frames. When you hear a word, its frame is activated in your brain.

Yes, in your brain. As the title of this book shows, even when you negate a frame, you activate the frame. If I tell you, “Don’t think of an elephant!,” you’ll think of an elephant. Though I found this out first in the study of cognitive linguistics, it has begun to be confirmed by neuroscience. When a macaque monkey grasps an object, a certain group of neurons in the monkey’s ventral premotor cortex (which choreographs actions, but does not directly move the body) are activated. When the monkey is trained not to grasp the object, most of those neurons are inhibited (they turn off), but a portion of the same neurons used in grasping still turn on. That is, to actively not grasp requires thinking of what grasping would be.

Not only does negating a frame activate that frame, but the more it is activated, the stronger it gets. The moral for political discourse is clear: When you argue against someone on the other side using their language and their frames, you are activating their frames, strengthening their frames in those who hear you, and undermining your own views. For progressives, this means avoiding the use of conservative language and the frames that the language activates. It means that you should say what you believe using your language, not theirs.


When we successfully reframe public discourse, we change the way the public sees the world. We change what counts as common sense.

Because language activates frames, new language is required for new frames. Thinking differently requires speaking differently. Reframing is not easy or simple. It is not a matter of finding some magic words. Frames are ideas, not slogans. Reframing is more a matter of accessing what we and like-minded others already believe unconsciously, making it conscious, and repeating it till it enters normal public discourse. It doesn’t happen overnight. It is an ongoing process. It requires repetition and focus and dedication.

To achieve social change, reframing requires a change in public discourse, and that requires a communication system. Conservatives in America have developed a very extensive and sophisticated communication system that progressives have not yet developed. Fox News is only the tip of the iceberg. Progressives need to understand what an effective communication system is and develop one. Reframing without a system of communication accomplishes nothing.

Reframing, as we discuss it in this book, is about honesty and integrity. It is the opposite of spin and manipulation. It is about bringing to consciousness the deepest of our beliefs and our modes of understanding. It is about learning to express what we really believe in a way that will allow those who share our beliefs to understand what they most deeply believe and to act on those beliefs.

Framing is also about understanding those we disagree with most. Tens of millions of Americans vote conservative. For the most part they are not bad people or stupid people. They are people who understand the world differently and have a different view of what is right.

All Politics Is Moral

When a political leader puts forth a policy or suggests how we should act, the implicit assumption is that the policy or action is right, not wrong. No political leader says, “Here’s what you should do. Do it because it is wrong — pure evil, but do it.” No political leader puts forth policies on the grounds that the policies don’t matter. Political prescriptions are assumed to be right. The problem is that different political leaders have different ideas about what is right.

All politics is moral, but not everybody operates from the same view of morality. Moreover, much of moral belief is unconscious. We are often not even aware of our own most deeply held moral views.

As we shall see, the political divide in America is a moral divide. We need to understand that moral divide and understand what the progressive and conservative moral systems are.

Most importantly, a great many people operate on different — and inconsistent — moral systems in different areas of their lives. The technical term is “biconceptualism.”

Here the brain matters even more. Each moral system is, in the brain, a system of neural circuitry. How can inconsistent systems function smoothly in the same brain? The answer is twofold: (1) mutual inhibition (when one system is turned on the other is turned off); and (2) neural binding to different issues (when each system operates on different concerns).

Biconceptualism is central to our politics, and it is vital to understand how it works. We will be discussing it throughout this book.

The brain and cognitive sciences have radically changed our understanding of what reason is and what it means to be rational.

Unfortunately, all too many progressives have been taught a false and outdated theory of reason itself, one in which framing, metaphorical thought, and emotion play no role in rationality. This has led many progressives to the view that the facts — alone — will set you free. Progressives are constantly giving lists of facts.

Facts matter enormously, but to be meaningful they must be framed in terms of their moral importance. Remember, you can only understand what the frames in your brain allow you to understand.

If the facts don’t fit the frames in your brain, the frames in your brain stay and the facts are ignored or challenged or belittled. We will explore those frames in detail in the pages ahead.

It is vital — for us, for our country, and for the world — that we understand the progressive values on which this country was founded and that made it a great democracy. If we are to keep that democracy, we must learn to articulate those values loud and clear.

If progressives are to win in the future, we must present a clear moral vision to the country — a moral vision common to all progressives. It must be more than a laundry list of facts, policies, and programs. It must present a moral alternative, one traditionally American, one that lies behind everything Americans are proud of.


To obtain ticklets to hear George Lakoff in Toronto this Saturday evening April 18 click here. For information about an inspiring all-day symposium, please register here.

This article is adapted from George Lakoff’s The ALL NEW Don’t Think of An Elephant! (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2014) and is printed her with permission of the publisher. For more information, visit

George Lakoff is an American cognitive linguist, best known for his thesis that lives of individuals are significantly influenced by the central metaphors they use to explain complex phenomena. Don’t Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, self-labeled as “the Essential Guide for Progressives,” was published in September 2004 and features a foreword by former  Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean. An updated version was published in 2015.