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.

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