On Framing (the truth)

A doctor once encountered an anti-vaccine, conspiracy ridden mother in an emergency room with her smallpox-ridden son.

The new doctor didn’t know how to convince the woman that she should let her son have the vaccine, and was thus flabbergasted. He told his boss doctor about it, and the supervisor basically said “watch this.”

The boss doctor went to talk with the woman. She said that vaccines were a hoax propped up by big-pharma in order to give us autism and thus inject us into the lifelong drug pipeline.

But then he said “have you considered that the anti-vax movement is an attempt by Russia and China to take out American lives?” A few minutes after this, the boss doctor had the mother’s son on a treatment plan which included a vaccine.

“How did you do that?!” asked the young doctor. “Old trick” the old doctor said.

Now I read this story on facebook from a friend who had pulled it from tumblr where it got millions of notes, so it’s probably fake news, and plus I was relaying it from memory. But you get the point. The point is that we all do not live in the same frame, and if you want to convince someone of something, you have to convince them within that person’s frame.

The woman’s frame was a paranoid one. If you were to provide her with scientific evidence and tell her how double blind procedures work, it would go against her frame, and the poor young doctor would’ve gotten nowhere. The convincing doctor was the one who told her something which fit within her frame. This is a very very useful thing to keep in mind when talking with people you disagree with.

Anyways, I hope the short story above convinced you that frames exist. Because I figured it’d be easier to show you that they exist than to write out how. Ironically, that story framed this blog post. But I digress!

There are two things in any argument: there’s truth, and then there’s relevance. The truth is the facts, the data, the models, the logic. But the relevance? That’s the frame. That’s the values. That’s the assumptions. That’s everything else. And there’s a lot of ‘everything else’.

The outcome that both doctors were trying to get was to get the mother’s permission to give her son life-saving vaccines. That’s the ‘truth’ or conclusion of their argument. However they dressed it differently, and one way was far more convincing than the other.

If you’re going to convince your countrymen of whatever it is you want to convince them of: your political opinions, to buy your product or service (marketing = 99.8% framing), that apples are better than oranges, then you need to figure out the frame that will best convince them.

The hard thing is figuring out where the frame is and which one would work best for the crowd you’re with. The other hard thing is to figure out whether you’re lying or not. I’m going to focus on the lying question now because it’s more urgent (to me at least haha).

The first question you may have is whether framing is avoidable. Why not just say the truth and then get other people to decide for themselves? Well, in an ideal world, that would be nice. But frames are impossible to escape. Period. We live in frames upon frames upon frames. Our bodies are frames created by evolution. Our upbringing is a frame. Our consciousness is a frame. Everything is a frame.

Remember, a frame answers “what’s relevant?” And the only way to sort through the infinite number of (true) facts is to figure out which ones are relevant and which ones are not. So if you’re going to pass on true facts which convinced you of something, then you need to pass them on in a frame that others share if you want to convince them of those selfsame facts.

Now that we know that framing is unavoidable, we should ask whether there are better and worse frames. So are there?

In my humble opinion, yes. A great example of bad frames are the mounds and mounds of political speeches you hear. They’re just so damn generic that it’s as if they were extruded from a McDonald’s sausage factory. Urgh.

A good example of a great frames are speeches where people become emotional telling their story. As a result of their emotion, you automatically empathize with them (as a human being with a soul) and suddenly find their truth more persuasive.

The good-bad continuum above is not a moral continuum – to be more precise, it’s a continuum which says which frames are better and which are worse at carrying the specific point they want to convince you of. So if you take one point but put it in two different frames, then the frame which persuades better is a ‘good’ frame.

The funny thing about framing is that if you use it properly, then it can be very persuasive, and can convince people to do things or to believe things that they otherwise wouldn’t do if the same facts were framed in a different way. Is this in any way deceptive?

I think there are two sides to this argument.

One person could say that yes, this is deceptive, because you simply told me a story which you knew that I would fall for and then used it to convince me of something which I otherwise wouldn’t agree with. But now that I write this out, I think that as long as the person stays within the realm of facts, and doesn’t make up facts, then it’s okay. You’re not the person’s parent – you have no obligation to make sure that the idea works for them or not – that’s their job, not yours.

So the bottom line is: don’t tell people false things, use the frame that’ll best convince someone of the idea, and it’s their responsibility to think for themselves.

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