It’s early in the morning and your alarm goes off. After rubbing out the sleep from your eyes, you stare out the window to be greeted by a gloomy sky and you get that feeling “It’s going to be one of those days”. You have already set yourself up for a bad day with just that one thought.
Welcome to the world of mental frames.
Now, I’m not a psychologist or a sociologist so I’ll try my best to explain this very simple concept that governs our view of the world.
“In social theory, framing refers to a schema of interpretation, a collection of anecdotes and stereotypes, that individuals rely on to understand and respond to events. In other words, people build a series of mental filters through biological and cultural influences. They use these filters to make sense of the world.”
That’s the definition thanks to Wikipedia.
You can think of mental frames, as a window. That window has many filters that have developed from a myriad of sources that affect what you see and how you see it. For example, a man walking down the street blinking his eye could be thought to just have something in his eye, that he’s trying to clear. Someone else might interpret that same situation as the man winking at an attractive woman as she approaches. It’s the exact same situation, but different meanings are given. You are the one giving a meaning to the situation.
According to Susan T. Fiske and Shelley E. Taylor, human beings are by nature “cognitive misers”, meaning they prefer to do as little thinking as possible.
Because of human beings being lazy, sorry, “cognitive misers”, a lot of the time, our current state of mind, past experience amongst other factors cast a certain bias over our judgement. In the aforementioned example, an observer who just left a date with another woman would more likely believe that the man blinking, is trying to gain the womans attention simply because of his current state of mind.
So our past experience, state of mind, evolutionary mechanisms etc control our judgements. What does it matter?
Why is framing important?
No single truth
Framing allows us to understand that there is no one truth. The meaning that we attach to events, experiences, actions etc is not set but dynamic. It’s not carved in stone but fluid like water. It’s easy for something to happen and for us to interpret that instinctively. But the meaning we give it, is not the only meaning. We need to be aware of that.
Affects your personality & mood
You have just lost your job. Do you frame it as you weren’t good enough for the position and now you’re unemployed. Or do you choose to frame it as that you are now free to pursue your true passion and that your previous role was only holding back. Your girlfriend ringing because you’re at a friends house late at night without her knowing is ‘her being paranoid and controlling’ or is she ‘just worried?’. The meaning you give, the window that you choose to see a situation through, guides the decisions you make.
Affects decision making
Psychological research carried by Tversky and Kahnemann on framing showed that the frame in which something was presented in, affected consumers decision making.
- A “95% effective condom” appears more attractive than one with a “5% failure rate”.
- People would rather purchase beef marked “80% lean” over “20% fat”.
Again we see that simply focusing on the negatives, brings about negative results.
You cannot avoid framing
There is no universal view of something. Even the colour of a table will be different depending on the angle it’s viewed from, time of day etc. Our personal views and biases always come into effect. But that doesn’t mean we are helpless.
What I mean by be conscious is be aware that framing is part of your life. I started this post painting a scene where you wake up and get a gut feeling about your day based on the weather. This negative feeling will carry on with your day. Maybe you miss your bus, which reinforces the view you had of “It’s going to be one of those days”. By being aware of what your thought processes are you can consciously choose the meaning you give to events rather than be a passive victim of your mind.
Find alternate meanings
Find frames that will allow you to live a productive and happy life. Don’t allow yourself to be sucked into dark places when the light is only a thought away. Are you getting older or are you getting wiser? Are you stubborn or do you have conviction? Are you arrogant or confident?
We think therefore we are. So let’s create a beautiful world for ourselves.