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Frames, according to many psychologists, linguists and cognitive scientists, are mental structures that are used to facilitate the thinking process. We use frames to provide categories and a structure to our thoughts. An example of this concept is George Lakoff's "Don't Think of an Elephant!" Lakoff, in teaching his Cognitive Science 101 course at the University of California, Berkeley gives his students a directive: DO NOT THINK OF AN ELEPHANT! According to Lakoff, it is impossible not to think of an elephant. The mere mention of the word "elephant" provokes an image and an accompanying frame.
Framing is the process of selectively using frames to invoke a particular image or idea. This idea is often associated with a pre-conceived cultural metaphor. Lakoff suggests, for example, that political terms such as "tax relief" are successful framing devices because the frame relates to the cultural metaphor of something positive. One who brings about pain or distress is an afflicter, someone bad. One who relieves pain or distress is a hero. Lakoff notes the salience of this concept in affecting those who hear the frame:
"Taxes are an affliction, proponents of taxes are the causes of affliction (the villains), the taxpayer is the afflicted (the victim) and the proponents of tax relief are the heroes who deserve the taxpayers' gratitude. Those who oppose tax relief are bad guys who want to keep relief from the victim of the affliction, the taxpayer. Every time the phrase tax relief is used, and heard or read by millions of people, this view of taxation as an affliction and conservatives as heroes gets reinforced."
The consequences of framing are extremely widespread. From a political perspective, if one considers the importance of agenda setting, for example, it becomes clear that the concepts of framing and agenda setting are linked. By constantly invoking a particular frame, the framing party is able to effectively control the discourse, thus often setting the agenda. Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber in Trust Us, We're Experts illustrate how Public Relations (PR) firms often use language to help frame a given issue, structuring the questions that are then subsequently asked. For example, one firm advises clients to use "bridging language" that uses a strategy of answering questions with specific terms or ideas in order to shift the discourse from an uncomfortable topic, to a more comfortable one. Practitioners of this strategy might attempt to draw attention away from one frame in order to focus on another. As Lakoff notes, "On the day that George W. Bush took office, the words "tax relief" started appearing in White House communiqués." By refocusing the structure away from one frame (tax burden or tax responsibilities), individuals are able to set the agenda of the questions to be asked in future.
Marvin Minsky sees frames as a core mechanism in the human brain, and advocates its use in AI. See: http://web.media.mit.edu/~minsky/papers/Frames/frames.html
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- ^ "Framing the Dems: How conservatives control political debate and how progressives can take it back." The American Prospect. Volume 14, Issue 8, September 2003. http://www.prospect.org/print/V14/8/lakoff-g.html
- ^ Ibid.
- ^ Rampton, Sheldon and Stauber, John. Trust Us, We're Experts! Putnam Publishing, New York, NY, 2002. Page 64.