Don’t Think of This Blog Post: An Introduction to Framing

Featured Image: Elephant by Kelechukwu Nwanne on Vecteezy. Frame by Pixaline on Pixabay. Picture background by 愚木混株 Cdd20 on Pixabay. Edited in Affinity Designer.


4 for Now

It’s hard not to get mad at someone we disagree with over politics. Not to just say, “No, abortions aren’t murder,” or “Climate change is real.” But it turns out saying these things are hurting us.

What Framing Is

In cognitive science and linguistics, a frame is a mental structure [YouTube] that helps us understand the world. For every word you learn, your brain creates a neural circuit connecting it to everything you know about it. When you hear that word, the frame is activated.

For example, as George Lakoff describes in Don’t Think of an Elephant, he tells his students, “Don’t think of an elephant.” None ever succeeded. They heard the word elephant and thought of a big gray animal with a trunk. Or of the circus, or Africa. These thoughts activate simply by hearing the word “elephant.”

Framing is using particular words to activate specific meanings. For example, “climate change.” Climate can be pleasant, and change is something that happens naturally, beyond human control.

Two Framing Worldviews: the Strict Father and the Nurturant Parent

Conservatives view the world as dangerous and competitive with a clear division between right and wrong. They believe this calls for a strict father figure who can protect and support the family while teaching his children morality.

They teach by punishing children who do wrong. Over time, they expect children to learn discipline, which leads to success and prosperity. Thus, conservatives connect morality to prosperity. People are either “good”: they’ve followed the rules and prospered on their own, or “bad”: they didn’t follow the rules, have not prospered, and now must be punished.

Translated to politics, this looks like tax cuts for wealthy people and reduced funding for social programs. When conservatives say “tax relief,” they mean a reward that rich folks have earned and a punishment poor folks deserve.

Opposite this is the nurturant parent view, where equally responsible parents nurture their children and raise them to nurture others.

This worldview presents great opportunities for framing because of its many strong values:

  • Empathy
  • Protection
  • Freedom
  • Honesty
  • Community-building
  • Trust (to name some examples from Elephant).

Why Framing—And Reframing—Is Important

The examples I’ve used are all conservative frames. Conservatives are excellent at framing because they’ve spent decades (and billions of dollars) studying language and messaging.

Understanding framing is important because saying, “abortion is not murder” activates the frame conservatives have flooded the media with: abortion is murder. You may not believe it, but your brain has created that neural circuit.

A key to reframing is not to use their language [YouTube]. We must also understand that conservatives connect issues with their values. Conservatives believe murder is wrong (as do most of us), so connecting abortion with murder also connects abortion with “wrong.”

We need to connect our values to our messaging. For example, abortion protects mothers from complications. (I’m just throwing this out there. I’m not exactly a billion-dollar think tank.)

Another key to successful framing is repetition. We must find our framing and use it over and over to ingrain those neural circuits.


4 for Later

  1. Learn more. New Economics has a PDF documenting results from a project about Framing the Economy in the UK. This YouTube Video explains framing pretty thoroughly. (The trade-off is it’s about 1 hour and 20 minutes long. The link starts you off after the introductions.)
  2. Practice framing. This site has a list of political issues. Think about where you stand on each one. Why? Can you connect that to a value or moral you hold?
  3. Practice reframing. Think about popular conservative talking points. (You can use one of the examples I used in the post or find another one you particularly disagree with.) How can you present your view on that issue without using the same language?
  4. I wanted this last point to be “support an organization that dedicates itself to studying political framing for the left,” but I’m having a hard time finding one. (Lakoff mentions one in Elephant, but it is no longer active.) If you know of/find one, I’d be happy to know about it! And if you have millions or billions of dollars you don’t know what to do with (in this economy?!), I’d be grateful if you put some of it towards this work.

What do you want me to write about?

If there’s something specific you’d like me to cover, or something I’ve already written that you’d like to know more about, let me know!