This shows two women.
Unfortunately, research into this brain wiring also shows that once people begin to believe lies, they are unlikely to change their minds even when confronted with evidence that contradicts their beliefs. Credit: Neuroscience News

The Language of Lies: How Hate Speech Engages Our Neural Wiring to Foster Division

Summary: Researchers analyze the language of dictators and hate groups, uncovering a common use of dehumanizing metaphors to fuel hatred. Such metaphors ‘switch on’ neural pathways in the brain, bypassing higher cognitive reasoning centers and steering focus towards certain ideas.

These mental patterns can become entrenched over time, making it challenging for individuals to revise their views even in the face of contradicting evidence.

The research underscores the potential dangers posed by such language, including the escalation of violence and political instability.

Key Facts:

  1. Dehumanizing metaphors used in the speech of dictators and hate groups instill and propagate hatred by exploiting neural circuits in the brain.
  2. Over time, these neural circuits harden, making it nearly impossible to reverse these ingrained ideas and resist conspiracy theories or big lies.
  3. Research suggests that those who strongly believe in such narratives are unlikely to change their minds, even when confronted with evidence contradicting their beliefs.

Source: Taylor and Francis Group

In Politics, Lies and Conspiracy Theories, released today, Marcel Danesi Ph.D., a professor of semiotics and linguistic anthropology at the University of Toronto, Canada, analyzes the speeches of dictators including Mussolini, Stalin, Putin and Hitler, as well as prominent hate groups.

His research finds there is one thing they all have in common: they all use dehumanizing metaphors to instill and propagate hatred of others.

“The intent of such speech is to attack those who do not belong to the mainstream, such as racial minorities, or people of different sexual orientations,” says Danesi.

Powerful language

For example words like ‘pests’, ‘reptiles’ and ‘parasites’ were used by the Nazi regime to compare outsiders and minorities to animals.

Meanwhile in August 2017, when groups of white supremacists arrived in the college town of Charlottesville to participate in a ‘Unite the Right’ rally, the protesters used both animal and dirt metaphors when they claimed that they were fighting against the ‘parasitic class of anti-white vermin’ and the ‘anti-white, anti-American filth.’

With the rise of populist and far-right political movements in the 2010s, the use of dehumanizing metaphors to engender hatred of foreigners or of those who are different in some way has spread worldwide.

In 2016, during a state-orchestrated public campaign against refugees and migrants in Hungary, the prime minister, Viktor Orbán, characterized them as a poison.

Our brain wiring

Danesi’s research shows that dehumanizing metaphors like these are so powerful because they tap into and ‘switch on’ existing circuits in the brain that link together important and salient images and ideas. In effect, metaphors bypass higher cognitive reasoning centers, directing our thoughts to focus on certain things whilst ignoring others.

According to Danesi, the more these circuits are activated the more hardwired they become, until it becomes almost impossible to turn them off. The same is true of conspiracy theories – research shows that people who believe them develop more rigid neural pathways, meaning they find it difficult to rethink situations.

“When we come across a big lie or a conspiracy theory, it can shape our ideas without us even being aware of it,” says Danesi.

“By being exposed to particular metaphors, we may develop hostile feelings towards specific groups – this is why hate groups use metaphors to turn the switches on, so as to motivate people to violent activism.”

Entrenched ideas

Unfortunately, research into this brain wiring also shows that once people begin to believe lies, they are unlikely to change their minds even when confronted with evidence that contradicts their beliefs.

On the contrary, these people will instead seek out information that confirms their beliefs, avoid anything that is in conflict with them, or even turn the contrasting information on its head, so as to make it fit their beliefs.

For this reason, it is unlikely that people with strong convictions will ever change their minds about anything.

According to Danesi, this can have devastating consequences.

“When lies are used to generate hate, harmful behaviors tend to result, including violence and genocide against the target individual or groups,” says Danesi.

“The spread of lies is also becoming a powerful factor in generating political and social instability worldwide, destabilizing democracies.”

What can be done?

Is there anything we can do to protect ourselves from the power of lies? According to Danesi, the best thing we can do is to understand the metaphors of the other party, and to examine one’s own metaphors.

However, history and science tells us that it is unlikely to work – research shows that once a lie is accepted as believable, the brain becomes more susceptible to subsequent lying.

About this psychology and neuroscience research news

Author: Becky Parker-Ellis
Source: Taylor and Francis Group
Contact: Becky Parker-Ellis – Taylor and Francis Group
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: Politics, Lies and Conspiracy Theories:A Cognitive Linguistic Perspective” by Marcel Danesi is available online.


Politics, Lies and Conspiracy Theories:A Cognitive Linguistic Perspective

Politics, Lies and Conspiracy Theories: A Cognitive Linguistic Perspective shows how language influences mechanisms of cognition, perception, and belief, and by extension its power to manipulate thoughts and beliefs.

This exciting and original work is the first to apply cognitive linguistics to the analysis of political lies and conspiracy theories, both of which have flourished in the internet age and which many argue are threatening democracy. It unravels the verbal mechanisms that make these “different truths” so effective and proliferative, dissecting the verbal structures (metaphor, irony, connotative implications, etc.) of a variety of real-life cases concerning politicians, conspiracy theorists, and influencers. Marcel Danesi goes on to demonstrate how these linguistic structures “switch on” or “switch off” alternative mind worlds.

This book is essential reading for students of cognitive linguistics and will enrich the studies of any student or researcher in language and linguistics more broadly, as well as discourse analysis, rhetoric, or political science.

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  1. Is there not a deep seated irony in ‘dissecting the verbal structures (metaphor, irony, connotative implications, etc.) of a variety of real-life cases concerning politicians, conspiracy theorists’ when the utilization of such language is tautologically exactly that? What exactly is a “concerning” politician? Has “conspiracy theorist” not been used to alienate and dehumanize any political group i.e. Ad Hominem fallacy?

    Other commenters have expressed their dissatisfaction with the bias, but let’s use one of the key facts to validate that concern. In U.S. politics, rhetoric very typically included terms such as “deplorables” have been used to describe republican voters. Even more compelling is that anyone even questioning the efficacy, safety, and necessity of Covid-19 vaccines (gene therapy shots) were and are lambasted and labelled as “anti science conspiracy theorists” or “heartless” across virtually all media and broadcast shows. This topic is salient to the theme of this research because there has been science showing they were right (available from CDC and pharmaceutical companies). There is nothing more fascist than forced/strongly coerced injection alongside the information surrounding it.

    Ultimately, the lower 99% of humans struggle with the linguistic traps designed to illicit emotional responses (“Patriot” Act, “Undocumented” immigrant, extremist). The conjectures of this article are egregiously biased vis a vis the key facts of the research.

    I supposed we will see if key fact #3 remains true for the authors of this article, and I wonder what would be Denasi’s views of it.

  2. Yes, a very notable conclusion but not at all unbiased by labeling one group as right wing extremists but not also labeling the left wing extremists. Or is this just another left wing propaganda hit job?

  3. True which is why in our democracies we need To take down social media that is expressive lies and dehumanizing people and create a new set of storied and i agen of society and people. Of course when we are under threat Real Or imagined we trend to week homogenity and keep with our own, this is fear and uncertainty and ambiguity adds to this . Thus politicla leaders community leaders are responsible for making sense out of these uncertaintiesnand stop The fear mengering for Building lies and dividing our democracies. We acceptmdifferences and dibersih as positive so why let it become a lie?

  4. This is total propaganda and lies. Adults can listen to people and make there on decisions. If any one is using language games it’s the Left where even “women” can’t be defined and opposing politics is labeled “hate”. All in an effort to control the narrative and make sure the masses are being formed properly and behave politically correct.

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