Cognitive science professor Douglas Hofstadter pointed to an ornament of an elephant on his fireplace and asked, “What actually is this? You might say it’s an elephant. I might say it’s an ornament.”
When people give names to things, it depends on how they perceive them, Hofstadter said.
Researchers on analogies and cognition explained how word choice in political discourse shapes society’s perceptions and reveals important methods on how people learn.
“If you look at Trump, I’m sure when he labeled certain things in certain ways they were probably very effective in reaching people,” Hofstadter said.
Anytime people use words, they use analogies, Hofstadter said. When Trump made the clever use of “locker room talk,” he demonstrated this analogy creation.
“He managed to find a label for what he was saying that trivialized it,” Hofstadter said. “Things come with labels as we give them labels.”
This comparison and Hillary Clinton’s deplorable comment, Hofstadter said, are analogies reproduced millions of times in people’s minds, and through these associations, they shape political discourse.
The similarities between these analogies reveal the fundamental brain mechanisms that govern thinking aren’t different, Hofstadter said.
“I don’t think it’s true that liberals have values and conservatives don’t, but they’re coming from a different place,” said Robert Goldstone, Chancellor’s professor of psychology.
These pivotal experiences in how people view the world, Goldstone said, form concrete cognitive anchor points for understanding.
“There’s a sense in which liberals’ noses may be rubbed, another analogy into issues of fairness of tolerance,” Goldstone said.
These values differ from those in rural areas, and as people bring up those experiences, they can understand how to make sense of media and discourse, such as Trump’s idea of a “wall.”
“We’ve been looking to see whether people can gain benefits of explorations in one situations to understanding other situations,” Goldstone said on his research in psychology.
Using a combination of experimental lab procedures in psychology and mathematical modeling on computers, Goldstone studies how people make connections in the ways they learn.
Education needs greater emphasis on cognitive models so students can make these cross-disciplinary connections as they are learning, Goldstone said.
“There should be more emphasis put on the underlying processes,” Goldstone said. “Oftentimes it’s dynamic. It has a temporal dynamic and a spatial dynamic to explain whats going on.”
These processes of understanding change through concrete representations, such as Jesus speaking in parables or representing evolution as “just a theory.”
“They understand the grand narrative of situation but strip away detail,” Goldstone said. “And by stripping away detail, they understand how to better apply this knowledge to new situations.”
Goldstone gave the example of teaching genetics through patterns, rather than just transfer of traits from parents to offspring, of this “concreteness baiting.”
Artificial intelligence research in the ‘80s on teaching computers to take tests would reveal concept maps with relationships between ideas, such as animals and ecosystems.
Forcing students to become teachers for computers, this work would reveal common patterns in natural language and processing, Goldstone said.
Using Copycat, a computer program to explore analogies, Hofstadter can describe how puzzles can be solved and how concepts are related.
“The concepts are still very subtle, very blurry, very hard to pin-down even though they are in a tiny micro-domain,” Hofstadter said.
They reveal subconscious processes people use to label, Hofstadter said, as people form abstract categories of concepts, even before words activate.
In discourse, abstraction and categorization form the way people think, Hofstadter said.
Warning about effects of today’s communication, Hofstadter said, finding labels people like is often rewarded — even in detrimental ways.
“In this day and age, tweeting and things like that seem to be very vogue-ish,” Hofstadter said. “It seems to me that tweeting as a good way of communicating is profoundly mistaken.”
One person trying to fight this would be like putting a finger in a dike to stop a flood, Hofstadter said.
“When the consequences of these trivial ways in which thinking is being degraded by the pressure to little tweet-sized things, we’re gonna pay for it sooner or later,” Hofstadter said. “Stupidity has a price.”