Misconceptions about framing
My last post brought up some comments which reminded me of common “misconceptions” about Frame Semantics. Here are some extracts from George Lakoff’s book, Thinking Points, which will hopefully clarify things a little…
Frames and Brains
“Framing” is not primarily about politics or political messaging, or communication. It is
far more fundamental than that: Frames are the mental structures that allow human
beings to understand reality—and sometimes to create what we take to be reality.
But the discovery and use of frames does have an enormous bearing on politics.
Given our media-obsessed, fast-paced, talking-points political culture, it’s critical that
we understand the nature of framing and how it can be used.
Political framing is really applied cognitive science. Frames facilitate our most basic
interactions with the world—they structure our ideas and concepts, they shape the way
we reason, and they even impact how we perceive and how we act. For the most part,
our use of frames is unconscious and automatic—we use them without realizing it.
Erving Goffman, the distinguished sociologist, was one of the first to notice frames
and the way they structure our interactions with the world. Goffman studied institutions,
like hospitals and casinos, and conventionalized social behavior, like dating and
shopping. He found something quite remarkable: Social institutions and situations are
shaped by mental structures (frames), which then determine how we behave in those
institutions and situations.
To describe this phenomenon, he used the metaphor of “life as a play.” For instance,
consider the hospital frame, with its clearly defined roles: doctor, surgeon, nurse,
orderly, patient, visitor, receptionist, janitor, and so on. There are locations where
scenes play out: the operating room, the emergency room, the recovery room, the
waiting area, and patient rooms. There are props: the operating table, scalpels, bandages,
wheelchairs, and so on.
The hospital frame also has an internal logic, because there are fixed relations and
hierarchies among the roles: Doctors are superior to nurses, who are superior to
orderlies; all surgeons are doctors, but not vice versa; surgeons perform operations in the
Conversely, the hospital frame rules out certain behavior, because it determines what
is appropriate and what isn’t: Orderlies or visitors do not perform operations; surgeons
don’t empty bedpans; operations are not performed in the waiting area; visitors bring
flowers to the patients, but surgeons don’t bring flowers to orderlies.
All of us know thousands of such frames for everyday conventionalized activities,
from dating to taking buses to getting money at an ATM to eating at a restaurant.
Many frames come with language that is meaningless outside that frame: surgeon,
emergency room, waiter, bus driver, PIN. Without operations, a surgeon would be
meaningless. Just as a waiter would be without restaurants.
Political disputes are sometimes about how frames interact and whether one frame
takes priority over another. Can the FBI search a congressman’s office for evidence of
corruption? That is, does the administration frame include law enforcement jurisdiction
Frame structures also appear on a smaller scale. Charles Fillmore, one of the world’s
great linguists, has studied how everyday frames work at the level of sentences. The verb
“accuse,” for example, is defined with respect to an accusation frame, with semantic
roles: accuser, accused, offense, and accusation. The accuser and accused are people (or
metaphorical people, like corporations), the offense is an action, and the accusation is a
speech act, in particular, a declaration. The offense is assumed by the accuser to be bad,
that is, illegal or immoral, and the accuser is declaring that the accused did perform the
Lessons from Cognitive Science
1. The use of frames is largely unconscious. The use of frames occurs at the neural level,
so most people have no idea they are even using frames, much less what kind of frames.
Thus, the conservative message machine can impose its frames without the public—
progressive or not—being aware of them. For example, the “war on terror” frame has
been imposed by conservatives but used by independent journalists and even by many
progressives without much comment. In another area, Time magazine ran the headline
“Illegals!” for a feature article on immigration. Democrats have used the “tax relief”
frame without being aware that it undercuts their own views.
2. Frames define common sense. What counts as “common sense” varies from
person to person but always depends on what frames are in the brain and how frequently
they are used and evoked. Different people can have different frames in their brains, so
“common sense” can differ widely from person to person. However, in getting their
frames to dominate public discourse, conservatives have changed “common sense,” and
progressives have been letting them get away with it. Progressives should become
conscious of framing that is at present accepted unconsciously as “common sense” but
that hides the deep problems.
3. Repetition can embed frames in the brain. One of the funniest bits on Jon
Stewart’s The Daily Show is video clips it runs of right-wing leaders and spokespeople
using the same words over and over on the same day. The technique of repetition of the
same words to express the same idea is effective. The words come with surface frames.
Those surface frames in turn latch onto and activate deep frames. When repeated over
and over, the words reinforce deep frames by strengthening neural connections in
The problem of rationalism
Understanding frame analysis means becoming aware of one’s own mind and the minds
of others. This is a big task. We were not brought up to think in terms of frames and
metaphors and moral worldviews. We were brought up to believe that there is only one
common sense and that it is the same for everyone. Not true. Our common sense is
determined by the frames we unconsciously acquire, and one person’s common sense is
another’s evil political ideology. The truths that have been discovered about the mind
are not easy to fathom, especially when false views of the mind get in the way.
The discovery of frames requires a reevaluation of rationalism, a 350-year-old
theory of mind that arose during the Enlightenment. We say this with great admiration
for the rationalist tradition. It is rationalism, after all, that provided the foundation for
our democratic system. Rationalism says it is reason that makes us human, and all
human beings are equally rational. That is why we can govern ourselves and do not have
to rely upon a king or a pope to govern us. And since we are equally rational, the best
form of government is a democracy. So far, so good.
But rationalism also comes with several false theories of mind.
• We know from cognitive science research that most thought is unconscious, but
rationalism claims that all thought is conscious.
• We know that we think using mechanisms like frames and metaphors. Yet
rationalism claims that all thought is literal, that it can directly fit the world;
this rules out any effects of framing, metaphors, and worldviews.
• We know that people with different worldviews think differently and may reach
completely different conclusions given the same facts. But rationalism claims
that we all have the same universal reason. Some aspects of reason are
universal, but many others are not—they differ from person to person based
on their worldview and deep frames.
• We know that people reason using the logic of frames and metaphors, which
falls outside of classical logic. But rationalism assumes that thought is logical
and fits classical logic.
If you believed in rationalism, you would believe that the facts will set you free, that
you just need to give people hard information, independent of any framing, and they
will reason their way to the right conclusion. We know this is false, that if the facts
don’t fit the frames people have, they will keep the frames (which are, after all,
physically in their brains) and ignore, forget, or explain away the facts. The facts must
be framed in a way to make sense in order to be accepted as a basis for further reasoning.
If you were a rationalist policy maker, you would believe that frames, metaphors,
and moral worldviews played no role in characterizing problems or solutions to
problems. You would believe that all problems and solutions were objective and in no
way worldview dependent. You would believe that solutions were rational, and that the
tools to be used in arriving at them included classical logic, probability theory, game
theory, cost-benefit analysis, and other aspects of the theory of rational action.
Rationalism pervades the progressive world. It is one of the reasons progressives
have lately been losing to conservatives.
Rationalist-based political campaigns miss the symbolic, metaphorical, moral,
emotional, and frame-based aspects of political campaigns. Real rationality recognizes
these politically crucial aspects of our mental life. We advocate getting real about
rationality itself, recognizing how it really works. If you think political campaigns are
about laundry lists of policies that have no further symbolic value, then you miss the
heart of American politics. [End of excerpt]
I’m aware that this will probably lead to further misconceptions (“Are you saying we should just be irrational?”, etc). Such is the way with new “paradigms” (I’m not keen on this word, but how else to highlight that this isn’t just a new surface gloss?). It takes a while for the non-familiar to sink in. But, one step at a time…
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