Personal Values versus Self-Interests


Watching a recent debate between the potential American presidential candidates on the Republican side, a question came to my mind: How has Donald Trump managed to convince some smart and educated people that he is a credible presidential candidate?

According to George Lakoff, an American cognitive linguist, people don’t vote for their self-interests – they vote for their values, “what they implicitly, automatically and unconsciously believe to be right.”

At the risk of contradicting some hard-core cerebral geeks, it turns out that, instead of being the product of our rational thinking, political differences come down to moral divisions characterized by very different brain circuits. Regardless of our political affiliation, our sense of what is right or wrong is deeply connected to the neural circuits of our brains.

While the American debates offer some fascinating performances that some of us enjoy watching, I am more concerned, on a pragmatic level, with how connections in our neural circuits affect our daily lives, and why we should care.

We should care because what goes on in our brains matters. Our neural circuits carry the thoughts which define our personal identities. They give each of us a sense of who we are as a person. Central to that identity is a system of neural circuitry which is telling us what is right and wrong, influencing and justifying our actions.

While these circuits represent how we think the world works and help us make sense of our reality, our mental images are often imperfect and incomplete. We focus on the idea of the world that fits our values, and we conveniently overlook, distort or simply ignore what doesn’t fit.

For many people, the plasticity of our minds makes it difficult to see when the world has changed, since we bend reality to fit our mental models rather than vice versa.

Going back to the original quote from George Lakoff, if people vote what they believe to be right, for Trump’s supporters to change their way of looking at him, they would need to rewire their neural circuits by hearing a different language than his forceful but simplistic vocabulary, and seeing different images than the ones the media is bombarding us all with.

The same is true in our own lives. Since our language shapes the way we think and determines what we think about, in order to change our mindsets, the best results come when we change the way we speak by adopting a vocabulary that reflects the new thinking we want to embrace and ideas that emulate our desired behaviors.