Peter Turchin recently posted an article on the Forum about the role of war in cultural evolution that stimulated a lively, yet largely discordant, conversation. I read through the comment thread and noted how the framing of the title and text contributed to the breakdown in dialogue. In this article, I would like to offer my services in linguistic analysis to share how the language itself played a key role in the evolution of that particular conversation. My hope is that it both sheds more light on the topic of the article itself and also assists in clarifying how frame semantics shapes scholarly discourse in general, often to the detriment of shared learning and forward progress.
First a note about the field of cognitive linguistics. It was founded by one of my mentors, George Lakoff, to study the various ways that language arises through the complex interplay of brain, body, and environment. (For an excellent overview of embodied cognition and language, see this talk on YouTube.) The words that we use “make sense” because of the shared social experiences, universal body structures, and common psychological underpinnings that arose throughout human evolution. Our thoughts arise in the conscious part of our minds as fully structured units of meaning. We immediately know how to navigate hospitals, restaurants, and all manner of social contexts we have become familiar with throughout our lives.
This is because our brains are wired to produce coherent information processing routines, called semantic frames, that represent the understandings of our past experience in the world. The discovery that human language is comprised of semantic frames was made simultaneously in the 1970s by researchers in psychology, computer science, sociology, and linguistics. Various names are used to describe them — social scripts, schemas, narrative tropes, archetypes, etc. — yet all point to the basic observation that human thought arises at the conscious level in fully-formed “packets” of comprehension.
Important for our conversation here is the additional observation that most of the structuring of semantic frames happens outside of conscious awareness. Estimates run as high as 98% of the information processing happens prior to and outside of conscious awareness. As one brief example, consider all that has to happen before you can look around a room and see tables, chairs, walls, and people. Photons must hit your retinas. Your visual circuitry must parse lines and boundaries, colors and shapes, and then send them off to other parts of your brain to combine with memories that are distributed far and wide in different regions of the frontal cortex, midbrain, and lateral lobes. None of this pre-processing becomes part of your conscious awareness. And still you are able to look around the room and make sense of it. This is possible thanks to the semantic frames your brain generates reliably and consistently every time you open your eyes.
I have started the conversation this way intentionally, to emphasize that what we take for argument and debate is profoundly shaped by what Lakoff and one of his collaborators, Mark Johnson, call the “cognitive unconscious” — which is the sum total of all information processing that cannot possibly become part of conscious awareness due to the way our brains work. We all bring implicit biases, moral judgments, uncritically assessed stereotypes, and more into each conversation. And when our feelings for the topic are strong — as they are prone to be for the topic of war — it is very difficult for us to reflect on what is happening in our minds as the conversation unfolds.
Now on to Peter’s article and its semantic frames.
Setting the Stage — A Title that Provokes Defensive Thinking
The article Peter posted was called War! What Is It Good For? (Quick Aside: This title was not Peter’s own words. He borrowed it from the name of a book by Ian Morris that was explored in the blog post.) This question activates the mental category for Things-That-Are-Good and conflates it with the semantic frame for war. The War Frame is structured around two opposing forces, each with an army that engages in battles over territory. Violence and death are strongly associated with the War Frame, asserting the social norms appropriate in battle settings to be both appropriate and necessary. Among these norms is the tolerance for (and often the veneration of) killing people.
Thus an entailment of war is the tacit or outright approval of violence that leads to loss of human life. This entailment, when juxtaposed with the category for Things-That-Are-Good, activates the implied logic that “killing is good.” This logic — if it arises in the reader’s mind — will prompt a defensive posture. The reader is likely to reject it as morally wrong as the emotions that arise when thinking about one person killing another provoke the judgment.
In his pioneering work on the psychology of moral judgment, Jonathan Haidt has shown that people do not reason to moral conclusions. They have unconscious emotional responses that propel them to feel that something is right or wrong and only defend their position (using rationales) when called upon to explain how they came to their position. This process of emotional prompt that activates moral judgment is readily triggered by the implicit logic of Peter’s title that evokes one to think about war as something that is or might be good.
As a result of this “framing effect,” many readers will enter the article and comment thread with a defensive and critical posture — one that arose from emotionally-prompted moral judgments that have little to do with formal reasoning or the logic of Peter’s argument.
Primed and Ready to Reject
Just as the students in the example Peter gave in his article were nearly universal in their rejection of any suggestion that war might serve a beneficial purpose (likely due to the fact that they don’t want to be seen as “war mongers” or people who support acts of war), the readers who commented in the discussion thread were selective in which content they picked up to build their case.
A metaphor from Haidt’s work may be helpful here. He describes moral judgment as being more like the defense lawyer who takes a position and builds a case for it than like a philosopher who reasons step-by-step to a logical conclusion. The emotional responses that naturally arise with the frames of war and goodness (especially as they are juxtaposed) will compel many readers to claim a stake in one position, then gather the “evidence” in support of it. It is at this point in the cognitive process that confirmation bias readily influences what is deemed worthy as evidence.
Confirmation bias is the tendency to uncritically accept information that supports the view a person already has combined with the tendency to be suspicious and extra critical of information that calls their view into question. As the reader experiences a belief that war must be bad, they are likely to overlook evidence that challenges their view. Thus a selectivity bias is introduced into the reading comprehension of all material that follows — both in the article and comment thread.
In other words, the frame effect mentioned above will prime some readers to both reject the premise on emotional (and unconscious) grounds before they’ve even heard the argument! Imagine how frequently this kind of “misinterpretation” comes up among researchers and scholars. When people have strong feelings about a topic the frames that prime their emotions will hold considerable sway.
And so we can expect that heated debates will arise that lead some participants to entrench themselves in their own position and become increasingly resistant later in the dialogue both to save face and to protect the view that moral judgment has prompted them to take. I find it fascinating when opportunities like this come up to see frame effects in action — begging the question What can we do as researchers to communicate more effectively when we know that these cognitive and psychological dynamics are in play?