What Is A Frame? (With Examples)
There is a lot of information out there in the world. Our brains need a way to know what to pay attention to and what to ignore. Think of a frame like a story or narrative. It presents information about the world by emphasizing certain aspects of our experience while de emphasizing others. Framing can be done with words, visuals, prices, and ideas.
Framing is common in politics. Often both sides will have access to the same events and same facts, but they come away with different conclusions. One reason this happens is because each side has different values. The values emphasize and de emphasize different parts of the event.
For example, take the hot button topic of abortion. One side focuses on how abortion is about a woman’s right to do what she wants with her body. This value leads that side to be for abortion. The other side focuses on the person hood of the child. By framing the discussion as one about person hood, they reach the conclusion that abortion should not be allowed.
Frames also are common persuasion, manipulation, relationships, and pretty much any type of conversation since people must choose what to spend their time talking and focusing on.
Another example of the power of framing was a study done about crime. People had crime described to them as a “beast preying on a community.” Another group had crime described to them as a “virus infecting a person.” The first group was more likely to support measures like increasing the police force and jailing offenders, while the other group was more likely to support measures that focused on systemic changes or social reform. So we can see how what we talk about before we discuss a topic effects how we approach that second topic. This is framing.
So what is the purpose of framing? Since framing emphasizes certain elements of reality over others, a frame’s purpose is to tell a story that helps our brains decide what is happening in the world. For example, if you have a rough day at work, you could tell yourself a story about how rough your life is and how you should quit. This story emphasizes the negative parts of work. You could also change the frame by telling yourself that these difficult events are a challenge that is making you stronger if you can make it through. Both frames emphasize different aspects of reality and tell the brain what is happening.
Frames can help you establish control in social situations, they can help you focus your life, and frames can help you get through difficult times. This article is going to teach everything you need to know about frames from a scientific perspective. We are also going to include some practical tips on how you can be better at framing things in your life.
Types Of Frames (A Complete List)
- Power frame: I am more important than you and have better options. For example,
- Problem frame: you have all these problems you haven’t fixed so you need my help.
- Authority frame: my way of seeing things is morally, empirically, or factually more correct.
- Prize frame: I am more valuable. Why should I do business with you?
- Time frames: my time is scarce, you better meet my demands before I leave.
- Intrigue frames: I’ll tell you a good story with all the important facts at the end.
- Analyst frame: facts and reasoning are all that matter.
- Loss frame: person X has taken from you what is rightfully yours.
- Redirect frame: I’m not here for the reason you think. I’m actually doing Y. (see the section on framing in persuasion)
- Mirror frame: Accuse them of what you are being accused of. This is basically gaslighting.
- Long term frame: That might be good in the short term but do we know about the long term?
- Contrast frame: This is used in advertising frequently. A decent car looks much nicer parked next to two terrible cars.
- Redirect frame: Think of what they expect and then do or say something different. See the section on frames in persuasion for more.
- Reinterpretation: X actually means Y.
- The “D” reframe: Deflect, delay, deny, discount, distract, divide, discredit, and deal. In other words, find a way to do one of these things to their argument. For example, “delay.” Argue that your opponent’s plan isn’t important and should be delayed so the group can focus on your topic which is much more pressing.
- Subversion reframe. If someone trys to say the issue is x, find a way to say the issue is actually y. For example when someone says “the question is whether we should tax these people more,” say “the issue isn’t taxation at all but whether we should focus on immigration rules.”
What Makes A Frame Appealing? (Frame Science)
There are certain things that make a frame powerful versus weak. A powerful frame is more appealing to people while a weak frame is easily dismissed as the wrong way of looking at the world. Science says that effective frames have 10 different characteristics that control how appealing a frame is to the mind.
- Repetition: Good frames are repeated in a frequent and timely manner. How long has it been since people heard your frame?
- Relevancy/Identity Threat: People care most about frames that threaten their way of life.
- Credible Messenger: The person who delivers the frame must be credible or people won’t accept that way of looking at the world.
- Emotional Match: If you tell a story to a peaceful audience about revenge and bitterness, people won’t be as likely to accept that way of framing the world since it doesn’t match their inner emotions.
- Episodic: Powerful frames must be presented through a specific story or anecdote.
- Prior Attitude Coherence: Appealing frames build on a person’s already existing set of beliefs.
- Group Approval: A person is more likely to accept a frame if they believe their in group already accepts it.
- Fewer Reasonable Options: Science has shown that too many options make decisions difficult. The same applies to the number of frames and the complexity of each frame. Simple is better.
- Prevent Loss: People are afraid to lose more than they are excited to gain. Good frames focus on what people are going to lose.
- Responsibility: People want to minimize their culpability and maximize their benefits. Appealing frames tell people that they deserve all sorts of benefits and aren’t responsible for any of the negatives.
I would also add 3 practical tips about frames:
- Good frames surprise people and catch their attention by challenging what they expect to happen. Learn more about capturing people’s attention here.
- People are often able to have their frame accepted simply because they are more stubborn and verbally dominant in advocating their frame than the other options. See how to improve your stubbornness here or in the section below on “how to practice frame control.”
- If you want to maintain the frame, don’t answer people’s questions. Instead respond to a question when they ask a question. For example if they say “why should we listen to you,” you can respond “why would you ask that?”
See these studies for more on the science of what makes people choose one frame over another.
How Do You Undermine A Frame? (Science)
In order to attack a frame, simply attack one or more of the 10 things that make a frame strong listed above. Here are a list of ways to attack a frame.
- Point out incoherent values or show contradictions.
- Perform small denials or defiances that disrupt the person sharing the opposition frame. Challenge their words and definitions they use, disrupt their flow, ask irrelevant questions, attack parts that are not core to their thesis, make fun of something, minimize the importance of what they are saying.
- Simply have a better story for explaining the facts of the situation.
- Frame buffet trick. Dodge the frame and focus on what elements of it that you want. See our article on dodging. Try using the phrase “the issue isn’t X, but Y,” or “what really matters is X,” to keep the focus on what you want to talk about.
- Use the I’m not convinced yet frame by pretending that the other frame hasn’t persuaded you enough.
- Tell a riveting story with all the important facts and information at the end. This works really well when someone is nit picking your frame.
- Use questions. For example, get people thinking about the counter arguments. Try this one “what would the other side say about your point of view?”
- Attack the person’s authority. Do they have experience in the subject? What do other experts say?
- Use stubbornness. Simply restate the frame and be willing to walk away if they don’t accept your way.
- Look at the practical examples for frame control in specific life situations below, or reframe using the frame techniques listed above.
How Do You Practice Frame Control?
There are many levels to frame control practice. Remember the most important step of frame control is practicing being stubborn. The first step will help you develop this stubbornness.
First, you can practice this by simply starting debates with people. Practice taking the opposite position that you normally would as it will be more difficult for you to hold your frame. Remember your goal isn’t accuracy. Your goal is practicing being assertive and stubborn. While normally you want to quickly change your mind if you are wrong, in this situation you want to practice disagreeing just to disagree. This is somewhat of a version of assertiveness training.
Second you can practice frame control with total strangers on text and video chat sites like omegle. Let them choose the topic of conversation and then either practice focusing the conversation on an aspect you are interested in or practice changing the conversation to another topic. Then use the frames above to keep it on the new topic. This particularly works well if you can join a debate style forum since frames are ever present in debates.
Third you can practice frame control in every day conversations. When someone makes a value judgement, simply disagree and assert something else. When they start to argue, use the techniques above, remain stubborn, and keep your frame.
Fourth you can practice frame control in minor work situations. Simply find ways to change how your coworker or boss is approaching things. Ask yourself how else you could look at this problem. Practice reframing even the smallest conversations like where to go to lunch and what the best sports team or video game is.
Fifth is to practice the preparation aspect of frame control. Think about the frames you regularly come across during the day and think of ways to subvert them. See the list of ways to undermine frames above.
Finally, practice improving your frames by studying how people tell stories. Understanding storytelling whether it be though comedy, books, or movies will make you better at framing. Practice applying elements of good storytelling you pick up. Pay careful attention to how people shift the way you approach a topic and pay attention to what people do to keep your attention.
Frames In The Real World (EXAMPLES)
Sometimes it is easier to understand a topic with examples. Here are specific examples of frames and frame tricks in common categories.
Many of the frames listed above work well in persuasive situations. But here are a few examples:
- When someone begins to nit pick you, restate your main thesis and then be willing to walk away. If people don’t have a bad enough problem, there is no point trying to persuade them.
- If you are cold calling people expect you to try to persuade them to buy. They will often say they already have a product and they don’t need yours. Instead of arguing, say “I’m really glad you already have software. I was just calling to give you information on the current marketplace so you can hold your current provider accountable.” This is a version of the Redirect frame listed above. This book has great reframing phrases for cold calls if you do sales.
- Sales people often use the loss frame in relation to deals. Tell the person when the deal is expiring or when you are about to run out of products.
Debate requires good frames. Essentially you are trying to convince someone that your way of looking at the world is the right way and theirs is wrong. Here are a few frames that work well in this situation.
- Questions are very successful at a frame game. Simply use questions to poke holes in the person’s argument. For example “what would the other side say,” or “what are the disadvantages of that plan?” Ask questions with a face and tone of skepticism.
- When people complain and bring up objections, simply frame them as minor hangups. “I wouldn’t let a little thing like that bother me.”
- Attack the person’s authority. Show they have bias, bad character, no authority, they are overreacting, overeager, incoherent, missing the point, or running away from the real issue.
- Negotiate the frame. Ask the other person about their assumptions. Are there better assumptions we could make that would lead us to different conclusions?
- Often you can’t persuade people that an argument or frame is wrong. In this case use the delay tactic. Frame the issue as something that doesn’t need to be decided at this time. Argue that something else is more important. “While we sit here talking about taxes, people starve in Africa.” (Be careful, someone might reframe your reframe by arguing that “to not decide is to decide.” Since not stopping something shows support by allowing it to happen.)
See this book for an excellent guide on arguing, some of which has to do with framing.
There are a few useful frames for manipulation. If you want to learn more about the key to manipulation though, check out this article.
- Often people you talk with will have thought of all the different moves you could make. Instead of arguing with them, simply frame them as a sneaky schemer. Why did they take the time to think about all the negative aspects of a situation?
- A useful frame in manipulation is the parent frame. Pretend the person you are interacting with is your child. Teach them the right way to do things. This often includes things like a parental tone, facial expressions, and oversimplification.
- One way to get people to accept your frame is to use the overwhelm into heuristic mode trick. If the brain is give too many options, it will resort back to what it knows and finds safe. If you want a person to not select the new frame that is being presented, make it seem really complicated and confuse them.
- Deny and insist. This is the basis of any frame battle. You can always simply deny that the person is right and insist on your way of looking at things.
- Gaslighting or mirror framing is an other trick. Whatever they are accusing you of, simply accuse them of the same thing. This muddles the water and makes it hard to assert a clear winner or loser.
- Finally is frame shaming. Instead of responding to the substance of a person’s frame, simply call it names. You can try “old fashioned,” “stupid,” “gaudy,” and more. Ask yourself what identity you can give the person’s frame that would disqualify it in your culture. For example if you are more liberal you might say something about how Trump would like that idea. If you are conservative you might say how Biden probably came up with that idea.
Cognitive weaknesses are regularly exploited in advertising to control the frame.
- The contrast effect. One item looks better when in the presence of a worse one. A person in a normal suit looks better in a room full of people in casual clothing. 80% meat versus 20% fat. Clothing stores often play classical music and hire people with accents to give the appearance of wealth and to drive the prices up. This creates a strong contrast with the outside world which isn’t that way.
- See also the decoy effect, the default effect, the denomination effect, distinction bias, and more here.
Frame control in conversations often has a slightly different feel because your goal is to maintain control with out angering the other person. Here are a few tricks
- Negative frame. Don’t think about a spider. Tell the person not to think about something and their brain will have a tough time not thinking about it.
- Use PreSuasion. If you want people to focus on achievement, competition, and goal setting, play them a clip of a race. See this book for more.
- Confusion trick. One powerful way to keep the frame of a situation is to keep people confused as to what you are doing. By keeping their attention, you maintain control because they are trying to figure you out and reacting to your behavior. Jokes, weird stories, and odd behaviors accomplish this.
- Dodging tricks. Dodging tricks are very useful for maintaining frames in conversations. One easy to use trick is to say this when someone brings up a topic you don’t want to focus on, “the issue isn’t x but y,” or “what I find interesting is this (z) aspect of what you said,” or “let’s stay focused on X,” or “we aren’t going to have that conversation.” See this article for more.
- Question tricks. You can always just ask someone “what does that have to do with the topic of conversation?”
Frame control is very important in an insult or comeback exchange. The key to a good insult frame is to have a brand in mind for the person. Here are a few suggestions: sensitive, creepy, awkward, shady, whiner, needy, entitled, weak, dramatic, delusional, oblivious, child, loser, unpopular, desperate, hack, guilty, average, less than. Think about what characterization most hurts your competitor’s credibility and then make sure to frame all of your attacks in that way. See our insult rolodex article for more.
- “I bet you are single because your face looks like a 911 crash site.”
- “I’m not going to exploit my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”
In The Workplace
Some people in the workplace can be extremely difficult to deal with. Consider applying these frames to their behaviors.
- If they are constantly criticizing you, frame them as a whiner. Ask what their solution is and then attack it.
- If they are always telling you what to do and assigning you tasks when they aren’t your boss, frame them as lazy. A hard working person wouldn’t be focused on giving work away.
- If they keep arguing, frame them as a time waster.
- Framing a person as helpless, irresponsible, or sensitive seems to always play well.
Keep in mind these are all basically character attacks and don’t actually address the argument. Be careful who is listening as your audience might lose respect for you if you never make a logical argument.
How You See The World
Your mental approach to life can have a strong effect on outcomes. Here are some tricks you can use. Keep in mind that you might see this as cheesy or an unrealistic way of looking at the world. You might even think that looking at only parts of the world is lying to yourself. This isn’t correct. You are consciously choosing to focus on certain elements of the world and not others. There is nothing unrealistic or false about this. Why would you focus on a way of looking at the world that doesn’t improve your life?
- Reframe setbacks or mistakes as opportunities to learn. You either win or you learn.
- Reframe obstacles as ways to weed out your competitors. Think of all the people who are quitting right now!
- Reframe in long terms. Will this little thing matter in 50 years?
- Transmute bad to good. Every bad event in life has a positive side. People dying close to you can make you appreciate the little time you have left. Medical issues can give you more time to read and think than you would normally have if you had to work. Lying or cheating can teach you to be a better observer of people. Another example would be if people insult you all the time and you aren’t good at insults, simply write each insult down and memorize it. Eventually these people’s insults will have helped you out.
- The victim reframe. Instead of looking at the world happening to you, take responsibility for what you do in the world. While what happened might not be right or your fault, it still happened. What could you have done to prevent that event? If there isn’t something you could have done, move on and stop thinking about it.
- Wordplay reframe. “I’m not good enough.” “That comment actually shows humility. It actually means you might be humble enough to master this subject if you put in the work. Arrogance is always a serious stumbling block for learning and growth.”
If you want to learn more about reframing how you see the world and fixing your mindset, check out this book on stoicism, this simplified stoicism book, this article on nlp reframing (not so scientific but gives practical examples), or this article on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and frames.