Part V: The Frame Game

*If you haven't already, make sure to check out Part IV: Framing...otherwise this post may not make much sense to you!*

Now to try and make this fun! Sometimes it is easier to see the frames other people use, than it is to see our own. The clever bastard on the other side of the mirror is quite tricky, and initially it will be quite difficult to see through these tricks until you can get a feel for the different pieces in play. It’s like learning to play chess. Even if you don’t know how, you understand that every piece can only move in certain ways. It is the same with frames. These are rigid structures in terms of how they change the way we see the world. Biases are frames as well, but these are the sorts of frames you would use for a 4x6 photo on a bureau, not the sorts that you put up in a gallery. Below are a few of these larger frames most people use. When you speak with people you know, and even those you don’t. Try to determine some of their foundational frames, and think about how that motivates and directs their behaviors.

Feel free to skip through this to the sections you find most interesting. It’s important that you focus on only a few frames you can easily spot in others, or yourself, then expand as you get better at it. I have left biases out of this for a future post, as they are more specific and precise.

Control:

The easiest frame to start with is our locus of control. Do you, or the people you interact with, believe personal behaviors influence the world? If you have an internal locus of control, then events in your life or the lives of others are predicated on personal choices. What you do directly affects what happens to you.

An external locus of control assumes that our actions have no real impact on what happens to us, and that events happen to us rather than because of us. This can be a global view (i.e. you have an internal locus of control in all situations, or vice versa), but more often it is domain specific. Perhaps you believe if you work hard enough at work, that will lead to a promotion, but making new friends is out of your control.

This can have both negative and positive implication on both ends. Let’s say you always think what you do has a direct impact on your life. Now imagine you allow a friend to borrow your car. They crash, and are severely injured. If you believe all events are predicated on your choices, you would take full responsibility of the harm to your friend, which may cause toxic grief or anger towards yourself. It can often ignore the inter-relatedness of others’ locus of control.

On the other end, what happens if you believe nothing you do has an influence on what happens to you? Well then why do anything? This fatalistic/deterministic frame leaves little in the way of maneuverability. Again, this is likely situational, but in general if you have an external locus of control, and mix that with little support or faith in the way of a higher purpose of power...well that’s spells trouble. Anxiety and depression often follow on the heels of that worldview.

Mindset:

This is another overarching frame closely related to control. Most of the research on this topic is by Carol Dweck over at Stanford. Her ideas have swept psychological, educational, social, etc. sectors like flame to gas. Essentially you fall in two categories: fixed or growth mindset. Again, let’s not put labels on which is “good” or “bad”, and just think about process.

If you have a fixed mindset, you assume that intelligence is rigid, and not much you can do will change it. You hold talent as standard. That means you think people are either born with specific skills, or they aren’t, so there is no point in trying something if you don’t have the talent. In other words, effort equals you’re dumb. This has some interesting implications. Let’s say you are really good at math, and hold a fixed mindset. That means when you feel challenged by more difficult math, you will naturally try easier things, and stagnate in skill because if you have to try, it means you don’t have talent, which means you’re worthless in an area you are supposed to have talent. Remember ego protection? If you are challenged with a fixed mindset, your mind will do whatever it can to protect that identity of “talented”, even at the cost of cultivating that initial talent.

Growth mindset places talent as secondary, and assumes that deliberate effort leads to skill acquisition. They believe intelligence is malleable, and subject to change through experience. When faced with a challenge, people will increase work and engagement over the obstacle to overcome it. People with a growth mindset see failure as opportunity, rather than a reflection of identity. Using the same example as above, you have a knack for math, but becomes confused by trigonometry. Instead of choosing to do the same sorts of problems you were initially so good at, you seek challenge in the new problems, read more on the topic, and get extra help from the teacher.

As with control, these concepts are usually domain specific. You may have a fixed mindset when it comes to learning to golf, and a growth mindset when it comes to learning computer science. It’s all unique for everyone, and rarely will people have global mindsets. People may also attribute growth mindsets to others, and fixed to themselves. This is a great place for your own self-exploration. What areas do you have a fixed, or growth mindset in? What’s the reason for that?

Politics:

Let’s step away from how we often frame politics, which has to do with government, or other organizations...we’ll get to that after this a bit. Instead when I say politics I mean the cultural and social structures upon which we interact in groups. Many of the below theories are applied to government or organizational philosophies of practice, but I want to keep this focused on the individual. Think about the people in your life, and what their primary philosophies are, and how that influences their behaviors. Understand that people might mix and match the frames, and that frames are always situational. Also, these are all my interpretation, and how I use them to frame myself, and others. I am probably slightly off on a few of these. You may have more knowledge. I am only trying to get you started, and like I said in Part 1 - this will be a lot better if you create your own frame gallery!

Rational or Irrational: Let’s start simple. Do you or the people around you assume that people are naturally rational or irrational? A lot of economics is based upon the idea that people act rationally all the time in order to always maximize reward and decrease punishment/loss. Irrationality assumes people often do not act in their perceived best interest, focused more on emotional reactions, rather than logical ones. Let’s do our best throughout these to not assume one is better than the other. They both exist, they both influence our lives. The question is do you think people tend toward rational or irrational, and how does that frame a person’s worldview? If someone is thinking irrationally, how will they act? Same with rationally? How do we confuse rationality with irrationality? Are we personally rational, and everyone around us irrational? Again, how does that influence how you, or others, treat people?

Law: Disclaimer...I am no lawyer. And you don’t have to be one to abide by the law frame. This equates morality to law. It means that the law must be followed to the letter, and there is little room for interpretation or evolutions. These are fairly rigid or bureaucratic types. This can also be applied to religion in terms of taking scripture literally.

Hellenic: This view values reason over revelation. In other words it is sort of an evolution of the Law view. It takes the rigidity of the law, and interprets and changes it through measured reasoning. This can be used for ill, by interpreting the law in ways that benefit some, and harm others.

Utilitarian: You’ve likely heard of this one. Essentially, is morality a numbers game? Do you kill one to save the thousand? Do you fire 50 employees to increase the bottom line? This is “rationality” taken to the extreme.

Machiavelli: Classic “Ends justify the means” reasoning. This is similar to utilitarianism, but focuses more on self-interest. This allows for unparalleled freedom of action, mainly at the expense of others, so long as the outcome is achieved.

Tabula Rasa vs Original Sin: The former assumes that people are born a blank slate, and only become good or evil (and anywhere in between) through experience. The latter assumes that people or born bad, and it is a constant struggle to maintain “goodness”.

Capitalism: Largely based on rational systems that always work naturally to maximize profits. The philosophy is based upon the idea that we are first and foremost self-interested, and will always act to improve our own conditions, even sometimes (but not necessarily), at the expense of others.

Marxism: There are oppressors and the oppressed, and eventually society will find (or fight for) an equilibrium of the two sides. This philosophy stresses the good of the many over the good of a few, and sees self-interest as secondary to collective interest (in the long term).

Socialism: Very similar to Marxism, but less combative. It assumes natural self-interest, and the need for a system to bring collective interest to the forefront.

Libertarianism: Also assumes self-interest as a primary part of the human condition. The frame is very individualistic in terms of rights, and that people should largely be left alone to do as they want, and suffer the natural consequences of their actions.

Anarchism: Individualism to the extreme. To some extent it assumes people are naturally good, and will form self-governing systems.

Complex System, Simple Frames:

These next ones can be applied to individuals, but I think it is also useful to think about frames on a broader level. Think about where you work, or other systemic frames that operate to manifest the culture and behaviors of organizations. Most of these are drawn from Bolman’s (2008) book Reframing Organizations.

Factories:

People who see the world as a factory tend to see the world as rational with a rigid structure. These are your pyramid people, with a set structure of clearly defined and specific responsibilities and roles. They prefer systems of hierarchies, and do not like deviations or when these roles and rules are not followed. Think bureaucracy or the Hindu caste system.

Families:

This frames focuses on interpersonal relationships, and seeing people as an extended family. People are either seen as part of the family, or not, and are treated accordingly. This often means that if you are “part of the family” your prejudices, limitations, needs, etc., are more likely to be forgiven and accepted. On the other hand, if you aren’t in the family, those prejudices, limitations, and needs will be exaggerated or disregarded depending on what benefits the family, or will keep them safe.

Jungles:

This is largely the capitalist frame. The idea is that the world is made of finite resources which we compete for. That means survival of the fittest, and ends justify the means are the foundations of this frame. Every day is a struggle to be dominant.

Temples/Carnivals:

These are groups who emphasize cultural norms and symbols above all else. Traditions, rituals, custom are followed, with no regard to rationality. That means they are looser or less well defined than rules, laws, and policies. These are your religions or similarly exclusive cultural groups.

Playing the Game:

I hope this is helpful to organize some of the primary frames. It’s a lot to take in, so don’t worry about if you forget all of this. The purpose is to be inquisitive about the frames of people around you. When someone makes a comment or an argument, think deeply about the frame the other person is using. Look through the frame with them to get an idea of what the focus is, and what is on the periphery. Ask questions or initiate future conversations that move the focus point somewhere else. The goal is to get someone to say, “Wow, I never thought about it that way before.” The goal is not to convince or persuade someone to your point of view, or frame. The same goes for yourself. See if you can get the voice in your head to say, “I never thought about it that way before!” It can be true, it can ridiculous and nonsensical, it doesn’t matter.

The long-term purpose of this game comes back to the idea that reality exists outside of our perception. Where we choose to focus becomes our reality. How you win this game is by trying on as many frames as possible, so that the picture of reality becomes more three-dimensional than two-dimensional. The purpose is to expand your frames and the frames of others - that is how you win. The world, and people, and our identity, are complex places, and there is a desire to simplify them. It is a lot of work to explore things deeply, and consider all of the angles. That’s why we want to make this fun!

Here are some more questions to help you get to the heart of another person’s frame and become an expert at this game:

What frame is being used right now? (to yourself)
Where are the structural strengths and weaknesses in this frame? (to yourself)
If we were to try another frame, how would this change the conversation? (to yourself)
What is another way to think about that?
Tell me more about your perspective?
What is it that leads you to believe that?

Summary:

In our discussion of frames we tried to bring the attention to your own self-awareness, and what frames you personally use to understand the world. We discussed how using these frames naturally creates blindspots, and the more frames you try on, the closer to the “truth” you will get. We spoke briefly about how these frames influence how you behave, and ways to start cataloguing them. Then we listed some questions to ask yourself (or others) to begin the process of discovering your personal internal gallery.

Next we talked about the frame game, and how you can have fun with this activity. I described some of the larger frames in hopes of giving you something to work from, but encourage you to create your own list. Lastly, I talked about how to win this game, which is not to persuade, but to get yourself or someone to say “Wow I never thought about it that way!” We ended with some useful questions for having this discussion.

Next up...Mind Games.