Frames and Framing

In the sense of psychology and communications, George Lakoff coined the term, “framing.” A framework is a belief, or a set of them, by which people interpret their world. We all have multiple frameworks; they need not be logically consistent. Framing is communicating an idea so that it fits into a framework already fixed in someone’s mind; it has become a staple of values-based political speech.

Most of us like to think that we collect and weigh evidence; then make logical decisions. Sometimes we do; much of the time we don’t. We go with the gut, either because we lack time to gather facts, or mostly because some idea fits so well – or so poorly – with our preconceptions that we make a snap judgment.

We may not be aware of our own frameworks; others built them for us from infancy. We don’t question anything we are unaware of. To us it is just common sense, how the world is or ought to be. This is particularly true of a moral judgment, deciding what is the right thing to do.

For example, suppose a beggar approaches your car while stopped in traffic. You make a decision in seconds. Do you ignore him on principle? Do you give him a quick size up; then look away? Or do you make eye contact and reach for money?

Not knowing a beggar’s life history, you pull your decision out of the moral framework by which you classify street people. Bums too lazy to get a job. Substance abusers; I won’t feed their habits. Con artists playing on misplaced sympathy. Or unfortunates; there but for the grace of God go I. (Personal note: I size them up and give or not, knowing that all moochers are not the same and that I may misjudge.)

One way propaganda leads us around is by tricking our frameworks, framing questions or statements to trigger a moral response, not a reasoned one. Propaganda may not be intentionally deceptive. It just happens because we speak using terms from our moral framework, so inventing a term to fit an existing framework comes naturally. For example, if you stand to come into a wealthy inheritance, it’s easy to label an inheritance tax as a “death tax,” and others may resonate to that phrase without thinking of the consequences to them or to society.

Frameworks determine our priorities for values-based decisions.

In a recent book, Lakoff proposes a very deep framework that for each of us influences many other frameworks, our concept of parenting: patriarchal control versus nurturing. Those with a patriarchal framework tend to favor autocratic systems; those with a nurturing framework favor more participative ones. This plays out in political issues of national security, internet privacy, social welfare, and many others.

Lakoff’s parental frameworks echo a 1991 book, Every Employee a Manager, by the late Scott Myers, which he began writing at least ten years earlier. A PhD psychologist, Scott wondered why programs of employee empowerment tried in the 20th century faded. (A number of nearly forgotten initiatives preceded lean, teams, etc.) Myers concluded that managers gripped by a parent-child framework of family values saw employees as children in need of control. If they could not control them, these managers emotionally saw themselves as derelict in their duty. In time, a succession of parent-child managers can weaken – or strip away – any organization’s empowerment policies.

Add to this the framework of a manager being an agent of ownership obligated to assure that a business is profitable; thus fearful of relaxing financial controls believed to assure this. (“Nobody else is concerned with profit.”) Sooner or later a controlling manager will lock up an empowering culture inside that framework. She may not even realize that she is doing it.

Myers himself advocated adult-adult managerial relationships with employees – not even faking being the smartest person in the room to qualify as the boss. He had no formula to transition from parent-child to adult-adult, but he knew that a tightly controlled hierarchy hobbled any organization engaged in complex work.

A huge gap exists between a framework holding that a company or even a society must “make a profit,” and a framework holding that mankind must protect the environment, starting immediately. Both frameworks reason that following it is in our long-term interest – commonsense to those subscribing to it. These two frameworks share very little joint space. Whichever framework is strongest in the minds of decision makers takes priority. It tips decisions: profit-first, or environment-first.

Bridging this split befuddles us. An example is a pair of letters in Science, Dec. 23, 2016. Both writers agree that forest diversity has irreplaceable environmental benefit; both hazily quantified that value by conventional market pricing. One writer contends that valuing a high-diversity forest as greater than what a landowner could earn from mono-cropped trees leaves no basis for paying the owner to preserve it. The other responded that market prices cannot value the non-tradable benefits of diversity; therefore governments must pay landowners to preserve it.

The reader can ponder the logical fallacies and values biases underlying this impasse. It typifies the conundrums common among those with an environmental framework, but influenced by a profit-first framework that is hard to shake. Being fully into an environment-first framework simplifies decisions. But how can we enter it?

Lakoff and others have suggestions. Expose people to a new framework until it becomes part of them. Give them new examples to see, new stories to tell, and new language with which to hook into them. Consign old examples and old stories to yesterday. (In a company where management controls the narrative, this helps leadership for culture change of any kind. But in open society new stories have to catch on and go viral in the media.) Unfortunately, stories of business fully shifting to an environment-first framework are very few. Most businesses are feebly trying to bridge the split.

A profit-first framework guides many non-business organizations as well as commercial ones. Shifting to an environment-first framework is a major overhaul of values frameworks. In addition, resolving complex issues by an environment-first framework implies much more systemic thinking – but real people can do it, and have done it. Globally, these issues seem abstract, far-removed. However, if we wade into the mish-mash of change in a specific locality, global generalities transform into specifics.

But the punch line is that how to live well within earth’s environmental capacity is not fully resolvable without generating a new system – a regenerative economy with Continuous Regeneration. We need to redefine basics: What’s work? What is success? What creates quality of life? All that and more must be built into a different framework.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Posted in:


  1. Layoff’s suggestion reflects Walter Lippman’s rules when he formalized propagandizing for Woodrow Wilson.
    When a business is formed for the purpose of making a profit then its investors should not be burdened with accomplishing other ends. If a society wants to burden a business with taxes for other purposes, such as retirement payments, employee health insurance, quality of effluent, etc. then the government, not those investors, should be accountable for the viability of that system. I watched a division of Honeywell evolve their monthly status meeting agenda from 0% healthcare to 50% healthcare while paying less attention to marketplace demands and opportunities.
    If we expect businesses and other systems to regenerate themselves and their consumption of resources then we should have equal expectations of regulators — with penalties for poor performance, not lifetime benefits when they leave office.

    • Good point, but the relentless pursuit of performance and profit is the reason many hidden social costs have manifested into real business cost. Lean became the source for corporations seeking a reprieve from their own blind mess of limited resources and waste management. What was once a hidden social cost (nature shall clean up our mess) has become a real cost when the river no longer hides our waste.

      Chasing the monetized profit hoping that society shall indefinitely cover the social cost of production is why business systems will not regenerate themselves. The social costs of healthcare follow the same line as higher education, environment and so forth. Expect society and nature to externally “pay the bill” and the entire business model falls prey to the social subsidy system.

      Regulations no matter how stupid, irresponsible, costly or corrupted, is nothing more than a by-product of the social subsidy system. Continue to externalize the social costs and the commodity “race to the bottom” becomes the Black Swan that everyone feels, but can not see.

      Demonize regulations and we demonize the very system which externally pays our customers for the privilege of boosting our profit margins. This bloated externally supported social system can not continue forever. Eventually we must find a way to internalize the social costs of production. Which could prove that much of our “widget” production may become extinct.

      The financial debt burden today for business and society is extremely unstable and fragile. What happens if the government subsidy system fails? How shall “Lean” overcome the loss of it’s own customer base? What is the point of high tech systems without a customer? How should government fund the customer base for corporations who only seek after the bottom line profit margin? Where does this money come from? What “Lean” program is capable of printing perception money to subsidize our customers?

      Unless we start talking about values that seriously reduces social costs and debt to nature, we shall become bankrupt long before the money supply ends.

      Difficult questions to address. But if we do not work on this today our children shall be blindly thrown into this tomorrow. Nothing is infinite and that is how Compression goes way beyond Lean.

      Michael R. Hall
      MRH Design

  2. Jack,

    You seem to be stuck in the “Chicago economic school” model of the only purpose, and primary focus, of a business is to make a profit. I contend that we have to start thinking differently now.

    Take health insurance, for example: before WWII health care costs were low, payable by most people, and health insurance was in infancy. The old country doctor paid house calls when I was a kid. Other than admitting you to a hospital, most everything he could do he pulled out of his black bag. ($6 a visit; my mother then made $15 a week, and almost all health payments were simple transactions in cash.)

    You are familiar with the humongous complexity of health care and its payment systems today. No so back in the 1940s when larger companies began to add health insurance as a bennie that would help keep good employees. It was low cost and relatively simple. Almost all other countries evolved a national health system. Our premiums kept going up until that burden induces companies to convert regular employees to 1099 contractor status to escape it. One estimate is that by 2020, half of all working Americans will be 1099. Foreign companies may pay a VAT that we don’t, but health insurance is not a cost against the bottom line.

    In all the hullabaloo about health insurance, I have seen no politician gutsy enough to say that we have to curb the overall cost of health care, meaning that we should ration it in some way other than insurance companies trying to negotiate lower costs. Taking on this issue takes on decisions that are emotional, to say the least. Like when should life begin and when should it end?

    More generally, how much social overhead should companies pay for? As noted in the book review, much of what passes for business today depends on intellectual capital rights (software), transactional finance charges, navigating regulatory-mandated processes, entertainment, communications, etc. It’s an economy very different from 1960.

    Back then, community boosterism to attract business did not cost much. Companies paid large shares of local taxation, and considered them to be minor expenses. Today I have little idea how much is spend for economic development, and no company of any size pays local taxes. They either don’t come, or they threaten to leave. (Who could “compete” with the blandishments of China 10 years ago? They bought off company location decisions fair and square.)

    Then we begin on environmental preservation, or regeneration. As long as the system tells companies that they have to externalize environmental care and other social overhead to be competitive making a profit, nothing significant is going to happen. Worse, companies making a profit without considering external costs are feeding their own illusions.

    I’ve not started on the steady accumulation of both public and private debt. We have debt-fueled expansion. Just the wobbliness of the financial system suggests that this situation cannot continue. The system cannot float the bloat forever. Pull away debt fueled subsidies to health care, agriculture, R&D, education – and the military – and the whole thing would collapse.

    We will not resolve this mess with the same thinking that got us into it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *