Tuesday, May 30, 2006


By John Ray (M.A.; Ph.D.)

George Lakoff is a Leftist linguistics professor whose linguistic theories seem now to have fallen out of favour but who seems to think he knows all about the psychology of politics. Lakoff has written a book (reviewed here) which purports to explain the Left/Right polarity of politics as Mother-oriented politics versus Father-oriented politics -- a book called: Moral Politics : How Liberals and Conservatives Think.

His program is an ambitious one. He rightly points out that there are many "contradictions" (I would call them compromises) in any real-life political program (he describes them eloquently here) and says he has a grand theory that explains how all such apparent contradictions arise -- a theory that shows the real consistency underlying the apparent inconsistency. That is undoubtedly a noteworthy and attractive claim.

I too think I can explain the inconsistencies Lakoff mentions but I think I can explain it, not in a book, but in one paragraph. Does that not trump Lakoff? I think it does. So here is the paragraph:

What I would say that is that the contradictions arise because neither side of politics is in fact much INTERESTED in being consistent. Conservatives don't like theories and just go by what seems to have worked well for people in the world to date -- in all the untidy complexity that the real world has. And Leftists are only interested in what sounds good at the time and are perfectly capable of advocating completely contradictory things from occasion to occasion as long as they sound good on each occasion [John Kerry, anyone?]. The example par excellence of Leftist contradiction is their common "postmodernist" or "relativist" claim that right and wrong or good and bad is at least totally arbitrary if not meaningless altogether -- which claim can be followed almost immediately with a self-righteous sermon on the rightness and goodness of (say) "tolerance". Leftists want to make us "better" while at the same time denying that there is any such thing as "better"!!

So Lakoff's program is foredoomed from the start. What he deals with is intrinsically INconsistent. There is no large-scale consistency there for a theory to describe. But a brief look at what he claims does nonetheless seem in order. His claim is an attractive one so deserves more examination of its fit to reality....

Lakoff does at least get right one of the basic differences between conservatism and Leftism -- more than one could say about the distinguished psychologists who authored the notorious "Berkeley Study" -- which I have "deconstructed" here. In a 2003 interview, Lakoff says that "the progressive worldview ... assumes that the world is basically good and can be made better and that one must work toward that. Children are born good; parents can make them better..... The conservative worldview assumes that the world is dangerous and difficult and that children are born bad and must be made good."

That is broadly correct though simplistically and moralistically expressed. I would have described the conservative view as: "children are born selfish and must be taught to consider others" But there is no doubt that Lakoff understands that Leftists do preach a much more optimistic view of human nature -- when they deign to admit that such a thing as human nature exists at all. "It doesn't exist -- but if it does it's good" is the Leftist cry of faith.

But Lakoff goes downhill from there. He says that Leftists believe in "civil liberties and equal treatment". Tell that to the conservative and Christian students who are regularly muzzled and intimidated on America's Leftist university campuses! And how is it "equal treatment" to have almost the entire university Professoriate politically Leftist? And Lakoff further says that Leftists believe in "the promotion of an economy that benefits all". No economy benefits more people than a capitalist one so Leftists are friends of capitalism? Not exactly likely!

But Lakoff's BIG claim is that the Left/Right difference corresponds to his hugely stereotyped view of what mothers and fathers normally do. In his sad world, mothers are "nurturant" and fathers are "strict". No ambiguity there! Typical mothers don't do discipline and typical fathers don't do love, apparently. He allows exceptions to the rule, of course, but clearly it is his view that conservatives do the strict upbringing and Leftists do the nurturant upbringing and each produces children who grow up to be hateful or lovable just like their parents. And a conservative upbringing is said often to produce aggressive and generally dysfunctional children too, of course.

But, before we look at that in any detail, note how pesky the evidence on Lakoff's initial assumption is. If women are basically Leftist, shouldn't they mostly VOTE Leftist? But they don't. For instance, George W. Bush and John Kerry split the female vote roughly 50/50 in the last presidential race -- something Lakoff cannot of course satisfactorily explain except by invoking "other factors" or by watering his theory down to meaninglessness. But if "other factors" intervened, it is surely those other factors we should be looking at rather than the demonstrably non-existent effects of sex.

And good old Joe Stalin sure was a motherly, feminine character wasn't he? I also think you could make a case that the conservative concern for the individual makes CONSERVATIVES more motherly. But the whole debate takes place in a fact-free universe so is not really worth having. For what it's worth, however, I will go on to offer a more detailed look at Lakoff's claims:

Amid the wild assumptions, he does get some things right. He says that conservatives think that children should learn self-discipline, self-reliance, and respect for legitimate authority. Fine! What's wrong with that? Those are the basic values of a civilized society, I would think. When he claims that such values are conservative I think that conservatives should simply bow to the compliment.

But again he goes downhill from there. He says that such values are the product of that "strict" father-type upbringing. He says that conservatives see the father's role as: "The strict father is the moral authority who supports and defends the family, tells his wife what to do, and teaches his kids right from wrong. The only way to do that is through painful discipline -- physical punishment".

I take personal exception to that. I will go on to the research evidence in a moment but let me initially note how Lakoff defames me personally. Most people would see me as well to the Right so I should be a "strict father" who belts the living daylights out of my son -- right? In fact I have never laid a hand on my son in my life. Does that mean I am not a proper father? Or am I one of those exceptions? I am pretty conservative, though, so I am a pretty odd sort of exception. According to Lakoff's theory, both I and all the other mild and loving conservative Dads I have met should be far to the Left. And as for the idea that the conservative "tells his wife what to do", he should try it some time. I doubt that he will have much success. I am inclined to think that wives are far more likely to tell husbands what to do these days! Lakoff is talking about demons in his own head rather than about how things normally happen in the real world.

Lakoff's whole idea that political attitudes are formed by childhood experiences with parenting is however just a minor variation on the old "California" theory put forward by the Marxist Adorno and his Leftist collaborators in 1950. Lakoff says that in a conservative family, obedience is emphasized and questioning of authority is suppressed. Adorno et al (1950) made much of that idea too. They thought that conservatives had a generalized submissiveness to authority and that this submissiveness stemmed from a harsh upbringing by the father. There is therefore already a heap of evidence in the psychological literature regarding that theory.

Psychologists generally were from the beginning much enamoured of the theory but whenever they set out to explicitly test its assumptions they tended to be much disappointed -- as Altemeyer set out at great length in the first half of his 1981 book. So rather than re-run Altemeyer's work let me point out a few findings that are not covered by Altemeyer:

1). Rigby & Rump (1981) found that respect for one's parents generalized to respect for other authorities only in early adolescence. By late adolescence, the relationship had vanished entirely. Since it is a central claim of both Lakoff and Adorno et al (1950) that a generally pro-authority attitude is the outcome of parents insisting on respect for their own authority via heavy discipline, this seems rather an important disconfirmatory finding, does it not?
2). Elms & Milgram (1966. See their "Results" section) found that it was rebellious rather than submissive children who came from strict parenting;
3). Baumrind (1983) found that children who had experienced firm parental control developed with better competencies than did children who had experienced less parental control;
4). Di Maria & Di Nuovo (1986) found that authoritative training and parental behaviour had very little influence in determining the dogmatic attitudes of children;
5). Braungart & Braungart (1979) found that attitudes were most regimented in far-Left political groups;
6). Eisenberg-Berg & Mussen (1980) found that it was Leftists rather than conservatives who reported more conflict with their parents; and
7). Sidanius, Ekehammar & Brewer (1986) found that racism was unrelated to type of upbringing.
8). Johnson, Hogan, Londerman, Callens and Rogolsky (1981), in a study of college students, found that ratings of "father" and "mother" loaded on a factor different from that loading "police" and "government".
9). Lapsley, Harwell, Olson, Flannery and Quintana (1984) reported some correlation between ratings of "father" and ratings of "police" and "government" but no prediction at all from ratings of "mother".
10). Rigby et al (1987) were in the Lakoff camp in that they wanted to believe that attitude to authority generalized from parents to the world at large but from their Table 5 we can calculate that the average correlation between rebellion/submission to parents and attitudes to the Police and the law was less than .20. That is negligible.
11). The twin studies (Martin & Jardine, 1986; Eaves, Martin, Heath, Schieken, Silberg & Corey, 1977; Eaves, Martin, Meyer & Corey, 1999; Bouchard, Segal, Tellegen, McGue, Keyes, & Krueger, 2003), show that the attitudes and personality of children are formed almost entirely by genetics, not by their childhood treatment. Your Left/Right orientation is strongly genetically determined but little influenced by your family environment. The most striking of these findings is the one by Eaves et al (1999) showing that conservatism/Leftism is even more strongly genetically inherited than how tall you are. But hard science like that will no doubt be totally lost on Lakoff.
12). Ray (1983) points out that the most widely used measure of authoritarian attitudes is just as prone to generating high scores among Leftist voters as Rightist voters.
13). Ray & Lovejoy (1990) and Lindgren (2003) have reported survey results showing that there is no such thing as a generalized attitude to authority anyway. Conservatives might respect some authoritative institutions (such as the Army) but just try asking most U.S. conservatives at the moment what they think of the U.S. Supreme Court!
14). Ray & Najman (1987) showed in a general population survey that there was no overall relationhip between psychological disturbance and political orientation.
15. Krout (1937) showed that young Leftists saw their parents -- including mothers --as not favouring them and as having often nagged and ridiculed them. And in consequence they did not want to be like their parents and seemed to have had very unhappy childhoods in general.
16. Peterson (1990) also found that it is conservatives who report the happiest childhoods.

So, not only is Lakoff grossly insulting to conservatives with his aspersions on their childrearing practices but the simplistic, "black-and-white" world he describes just does not exist. Parenting seems to have very little influence on the final attitudes of the children at all and when it does the influence is not as Lakoff and his predecessors describe it.


Adorno,T.W., Frenkel-Brunswik, E., Levinson, D.J. & Sanford, R.N. (1950). The authoritarian personality New York: Harper.

Altemeyer, R. (1981). Right-wing authoritarianism. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press.

Baumrind, D. (1983) Rejoinder to Lewis's reinterpretation of parental firm control effects: Are authoritative families really harmonious? Psychological Bulletin 94, 132-142.

Bouchard, T.J., Segal, N. L., Tellegen, A, McGue, M, Keyes, M. and Krueger, R. (2003) Evidence for the construct validity and heritability of the Wilson-Patterson conservatism scale: a reared-apart twins study of social attitudes. Personality and Individual Differences, 34 (6), April 2003, 959-969

Braungart, R.G. & Braungart, M.M. (1979) Reference group, social judgment and student politics. Adolescence 14, 135-157.

Di Maria, F. & di Nuovo, S. (1986) Sulla genesi del dogmatismo educativo. Percezione del Se reale e ideale e ruolo delle figure genitoriali Eta evolutiva, No 23, 15-28.

Eaves L, Martin N, Heath A, Schieken R, Meyer J, Silberg J, Neale M, Corey L. (1997) Age changes in the causes of individual differences in conservatism. Behavior Genetics 1997, 27(2), 121-124.

Eaves, L.J., Martin, N.G., Meyer, J.M. & Corey, L.A. (1999) Biological and cultural inheritance of stature and attitudes. In: Cloninger, C.R., Personality and psychopathology. Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Press.

Eisenberg-Berg, N. & Mussen, P. (1980) Personality correlates of socio-political liberalism and conservatism in adolescence. J. Genetic Psychology 137, 165-177.

Elms, A.C. & Milgram, (1966) Personality characteristics associated obedience and defiance toward authoritative command. J. Experimental Research in Personality 1, 282-289.

Johnson, J.A., Hogan, R., Zonderman, A.B., Callens, C. & Rogolsky, S. (1981) Moral judgment, personality and attitudes to authority J. Personality & Social Psychology 40, 370-373.

Krout, M.H. (1937) A Controlled Study of the Development and Attitudes of Radicals. Psychological Bulletin, 34, 706-707.

Lapsley, D.K., Harwell, M.R., Olson, L.M., Flannery, D. & Quintanna, S.M. (1984) Moral judgment, personality and attitude to authority in early and late adolescence. J. Youth & Adolescence 13, 527- 542.

Lindgren, J. (2003) Change, Superstitions, Job Security, and Liberal Authoritarian Religions: Preliminary Comments on "Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition" Internet publication only.

Martin, N. & Jardine, R. (1986) Eysenck's contribution to behaviour genetics. In: S & C. Modgil (Eds.) Hans Eysenck: Consensus and controversy. Lewes, E. Sussex: Falmer

Peterson, S.A. (1990) Political Behavior: Patterns in Everyday Life. Newberry Park: Sage.

Ray, J.J. (1983). Half of all authoritarians are Left-wing: A reply to Eysenck and Stone. Political Psychology, 4, 139-144.

Ray, J.J. & Lovejoy, F.H. (1990) Does attitude to authority exist? Personality & Individual Differences, 11, 765-769.

Ray, J.J. & Najman, J.M. (1987) Neoconservatism, mental health and attitude to death. Personality & Individual Differences, 8, 277-279.

Rigby, K. & Rump, E.E. (1981) Attitudes towards parents and institutional authorities during adolescence. J. of Psychology 109, 109-118
Rigby, K., Schofield, P. & Slee, P.T. (1987) The similarity of attitudes towards personal and impersonal types of authority among adolescent schoolchildren. J. Adolescence 10, 241-253.

Sidanius, J., Ekehammar, B. & Brewer, R.M. (1986) The political socialization determinants of higher order sociopolitical space: A Swedish example. J. Social Psychology 126, 7-22.


1). Lakoff and the feminists

Lakoff has some amusing predecessors among feminist psychologists. He is not the first to opine on what is typical of males and females. Perhaps the most basic feminist theory there is concerns androgyny -- the idea that a whole person should be good at both male and female things (as in Lesbians?). So do people who in fact embody both male and female traits turn out to be psychologically healthier?

The tradition of research into that question relies very heavily on the BSRI (Bem Sex-Role Inventory) -- a questionnaire devised by Sandra Bem which purports to provide a measure of psychological androgyny. It contains both typically male and typically female statements and you get a high score by agreeing with a lot of both sorts of statements.

Simple enough? Simple in conception but totally bungled by Sandra Bem. It turns out that most of Bem's questions do not differentiate men and women at all. A supposedly "feminine" statement is just as likely to be agreed to by men as by women. In psychologist's terms, the "scale" (questionnaire) lacks even elementary construct validity. Sandra Bem's work is NOT a good recommendation for women doing science. Her scale may measure something but it does NOT measure sex-role orientation.

Criticism is cheap, however, so when I pointed all that out long ago, I also put together a list of statements that DID differentiate men and women. And when I gave those statements to a community sample, what I found was precisely the OPPOSITE to what Bem and her feminist friends were asserting. I found that it was people who were LOW on traits that were typical of males and females who were psychologically healthiest. So if there ARE some Leftists and Rightists such as Lakoff describes, they are likely to be at the less well-functioning end of the population. In other words, there may be some soppy Leftists and aggressive Rightists who approximate Lakoff's fantasies but they are not typical of the population as a whole. For a representation of a soppy Leftist, the picture below of a British "slavery apologist" would be hard to beat.

Rather peskily for Lakoff, however, the "sensitive" and soppy one is in fact a male.

For details and more discussion of the androgyny research see: Ray, J.J. & Lovejoy, F.H. (1984) The great androgyny myth: Sex roles and mental health in the community at large. J. Social Psychology 124, 237-246.

So, like Lakoff, the feminists KNEW what was typical of men and women but they were wrong. In both cases their idea of what was typically male and female existed only in their own heads. Real males and females did not do what simplistic Leftist stereotypes predicted they should. Both Lakoff and the feminists may be talking about something but it is not what they claim it is.

2). One reader wrote in with some good comments that I reproduce below. I like his contrary view of the Leftist mother role!

"Lakoff posited that conservatives have a "strict father" view of social institutions, while progressives have a "nurturant parent" (I prefer "nagging mother") view. The problem is that by discussing the differences between conservatives and progressives in this manner, he is deliberately "framing" our choices of political and social institutions as being between a "nurturant", well-meaning, feminine totalitarianism, and that of a "strict", sadistic, hypermasculine totalitarianism. And given a choice only between these two, wouldn't most people choose the former? In other words, he offers a false dichotomy.

And Interested Participant has more on Lakoff's nutty political ideas.

3). But Lakoff has his defenders too. All Too Human criticizes my article on the grounds that Lakoff has added in to his account a lot of ifs and buts and exceptions that he can fall back on if his central thesis is challenged. Of course he did. He would not be an academic if he had done otherwise. That he allows exceptions does not alter the basic thrust of his claims however. He still claims fairly clearly that typical mothers don't do the discipline, for instance. What a laugh!

And this statement by Lakoff from a 2003 interview:

"The conservative worldview, the strict father model, assumes that the world is dangerous and difficult and that children are born bad and must be made good. The strict father is the moral authority who supports and defends the family, tells his wife what to do, and teaches his kids right from wrong. The only way to do that is through painful discipline - physical punishment that by adulthood will become internal discipline. The good people are the disciplined people"

is perfectly unambiguous about what a weird view he has of the typical conservative. It is also a demonstrably wrong view as the references I give at the end of my article above attest.

"All too Human" also defends Lakoff's claim that Leftists are devoted to "equal treatment" and has some feeble defences of the fact that conservatives get anything BUT equal treatment on American university campuses. Rather than me reply to that just read this instance of gross, deliberate, sustained and illegal discrimination against conservatives at Washington University School of Law. I regularly document similar abuses at other universities and colleges on EDUCATION WATCH.

4). Lakoff has recently written a book in which he purports to tell Leftists how to win elections. There is a good review of it here. What the review points out is that Lakoff is openly advocating the twisting of language. One would have thought that the Leftists who have renamed racial discrimination as "affirmative action" and killing babies as being "pro-choice", would hardly need to be taught that lesson! Long ago, however, Orwell warned us about the Leftist twisting of language to mean the opposite of what it appears to say so Lakoff is nothing new. That Lakoff is openly advocating what Orwell satirized is however a sad testimony to his personal self-absorption and the general Leftist inability to learn from history.

Speaking of history, one of Lakoff's central proposals in the book just mentioned is to redefine "freedom" to mean more or less its opposite. Who does that remind you of? It reminds me of an essay called "The Nature of Spirit" by G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831). Hegel's basic idea there was also to redefine "freedom" to mean its opposite. See here. Hegel was of course the inspiration of Karl Marx.

5). 2006 Update

Steven Pinker has written a good takedown of Lakoff. Excerpt:

The field of linguistics has exported a number of big ideas to the world. They include the evolution of languages as an inspiration to Darwin for the evolution of species; the analysis of contrasting sounds as an inspiration for structuralism in literary theory and anthropology; the Whorfian hypothesis that language shapes thought; and Chomsky's theory of deep structure and universal grammar. Even by these standards, George Lakoff's theory of conceptual metaphor is a lollapalooza. If Lakoff is right, his theory can do everything from overturning millennia of misguided thinking in the Western intellectual tradition to putting a Democrat in the White House. ...

There is much to admire in Lakoff's work in linguistics, but Whose Freedom?, and more generally his thinking about politics, is a train wreck. Though it contains messianic claims about everything from epistemology to political tactics, the book has no footnotes or references (just a generic reading list), and cites no studies from political science or economics, and barely mentions linguistics. Its use of cognitive neuroscience goes way beyond any consensus within that field, and its analysis of political ideologies is skewed by the author's own politics and limited by his disregard of centuries of prior thinking on the subject. And Lakoff's cartoonish depiction of progressives as saintly sophisticates and conservatives as evil morons fails on both intellectual and tactical grounds.


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