Changing The Frame

Part 1 of 3 in the series Changing The Frame

For nearly everyone who seeks to facilitate change, the first faltering step is usually in the crafting of a persuasive argument. We find the right analysis, we build our syllogisms, we choose our words and our pictures. We are inventing the perfect case for the adoption of our desired practice.

This is a fine start, of course, nothing wrong with it, but if we stop there, we’re not going to be nearly as effective as change midwives.


Because most people most of the time don’t reason, then decide. They decide, and then reason.

Jonathan Haidt speaks of elephants and riders, where the rider is our conscious mind, and the elephant is everything else. In the common model, the rider is the pilot, and it directs the elephant, and the elephant moves according to its instructions.

But see, that’s a *rider* talking. 🙂

In reality, the greater part of the time, what happens is that the elephant does something, and the rider — after the fact, mind you — swoops in to explain why the rider wanted it done.

Humans, most of the time, don’t act from thought, they act from something we’ll call a “frame” here in a second.

Hold on. Am I really saying people don’t think or that thinking doesn’t drive some behavior? No. They *do* think, and it *does* sometimes drive behavior. But far less than the common “elephant does the rider’s bidding” model would have us believe.

So if we want to be successful at facilitating change, we have to push further than just having a logical and persuasive case.

So what *can* we do? If humans aren’t acting from thinking, what *are* they acting from, and what can we do to increase the likelihood that a human will embrace a change?

We have to change the frame.

What’s the word “frame” even mean? It comes from cognitive science and old-school AI research. (I’m using it more loosely here than its coiners.)

Let’s talk about it by using the same word in two of its more familiar contexts.

When you go to the art museum to look at paintings, you will see a lot of “picture frames”. Those picture frames have two interesting properties, first in their function, and second in their visibility.

A Picture Frame

What do picture frames do? Well. They tell you where the art is, don’t they? They tell you where to look. That is their function.

And here’s the thing, in so doing, even as they *direct* our gaze to the art, they fade into the background, becoming largely invisible to us.

Of course, artists have been playing with these ideas for thousands of years, and doing all sorts of tricks and jokes and visual puns using frames, but stick with me on this naive case: frames tell us where to look, and they themselves become *outside* where we look.

A Car Frame

A second kind of frame is frame of a car. Every car has a frame. And again, for our purposes, the two interesting aspects are its function and its visibility.

A car’s frame is a mostly-rigid piece of metal, with various slots and holes arranged in various relationships to each other. Every part of your car is connected directly or indirectly to its frame. Further, the frame doesn’t accomodate just any parts, and it doesn’t accommodate them in just any arbitrary relationship to one another. It specifies the parts, and it specifies where and how they will relate to one another. That’s the function of a car’s frame.

As for visibility? It’s even worse with a car’s frame than with a picture’s frame. You have to go quite a ways out of your way to see one at all, even though there *is* one inside of every car you see, and even though its function is absolutely critical.

A Mental Frame

A mental frame is often likened to a kind of crystallized thought, a pre-frozen approach. Sometimes it’s treated as a problem-solving script.

Its function is a kind of blend of the car and picture frames. It tells us where to look, and it holds the parts of our thoughts, the concepts, in relation to each other. And just like the other two frames, when it’s doing its job, we mostly don’t even see it.

And that job is guiding, shaping, and driving most of our behavior.

As far as I can tell, Abraham Maslow never actually quite said “If all you have is a hammer, all you will see are nails.” But it’s often called “Maslow’s hammer”, and it’s certainly consonant with other ideas he taught.

At first blush, most folks understand this to mean that the tool we have shapes the *solutions* we invent. That’s accurate, but it goes a little deeper, because it’s also saying the tool shapes the very *problems* we experience.

And Maslow wasn’t a blacksmith and he wasn’t a carpenter, he was a humanist psychologist. The central word in Maslow’s non-quotation isn’t “hammer”, and it isn’t “nail”. It’s “see”.

Mental frames are the constructs by which we experience our world. They guide and shape almsot every aspect of our behavior. So if we’re going to help people change how they behave, we’re going to have to help people change their frames.

And how do we change a frame?

By creating community, narrative, and experience.

We’ll look into that idea next time!

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