Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess: Framing the Events of Spring and Summer 2020

by Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess

July 14, 2020




This post is part of the Constructive Conflict Initiative Blog


Guy and I had started working on a blog post on framing COVID-19 when the George Floyd killing (and aftermath) happened. Before we got our post done, Carrie Menkel-Meadow shared a related excellent post entitled Words Matter! in which she looked at the words we were using to describe those two events, and considered alternative language (i.e., frames) we might use to respond to both of those events more effectively.

A few days later, Sanda Kaufman, also a framing expert, sent us a long and excellent update to her original article on framing which has been published on Beyond Intractability since 2005. In her update, Sanda, like Carrie, looks at how framing is being used to explain current events, and how it might be used differently to address these events more successfully.  (Sanda's article is Back to Basics: Making Sense of Current Events - Can Framing Help?)

These are both excellent articles, and we hope you'll read them if you haven't.  But we'd like to add a few ideas to the framing discussion that Sanda and Carrie didn't cover, (and we may cover a bit of the same ground too, to make sure this essay is comprehensible on its own, and doesn't require you to consult the other two to understand this one.)

Rationality: Only a Small Part of How We Think

A big part of why rational conflict resolution models have had so much trouble dealing with intractable conflict is that they are based on an image of the way in which people think (yes a frame!) that applies to only a relatively small fraction of human thought. Many of us tend to think that, if we could just put together a carefully-reasoned, well-articulated, and evidence-based explanation of why our approach to a controversial issue would do a better job of protecting someone else's interests, then, they can be expected to say, in effect, "you're right, let's do that." 

The problem with such an approach is that it tends to think that the rational argument is the whole thing and all that matters. This "rationality frame" discounts the lifetime of experience and learning that goes into determining how people actually think about the issues and, more generally, the world and their place in it.  One's worldview includes a very large collection of decision rules that people use to determine how they should behave in various situations.  And those decision rules aren't just logic.  They are also emotional.  For instance, we consider how that other proposal or point of view makes us feel. Does it create cognitive dissonance (two contradictory ideas in our heads)? (If so, people tend to dislike such feelings, and they usually reject the information causing the dissonance, to return to a place of cognitive comfort—what they knew already.)  Does it make me feel stupid or otherwise lose face?  Again, if it does, we are likely to retreat to a place of safety—which entails sticking with our original beliefs and assertions. In fact their are many such cognitive biases that make us balance and act on information in non-rational ways.  One major category of bias are our worldviews or "frames." 

What are "Frames"?

As Sanda explained in both her original Frames, Framing and Reframing article, as well as her recent blog post, frames are the "mental filters" that everyone uses to help make sense of information. 

Frames are the "mental filters" that everyone uses to help make sense of information. 

Restated briefly, people can't possibly keep track of all of the information that comes their way—the things they experience directly, the things they read, see on TV, on social media, etc. They have to put things in categories to interpret and remember them.  And to do that, they use filters (a.k.a. frames) to simplify the information to be consistent with other information they have.  So whenever we see or learn something new, we filter that information based on our pre-conceived expectations of what we think is going on, and based on those filters, we put it in a category in our mind.  Those filters and categories are our frames.  

So, for example, recently in Colorado, we just learned there is a new forest fire burning.  Some people would apply a climate-change filter/frame to that information:  "I've learned that climate change causes forest fires, so that fire was probably caused by climate change."  So they put the nugget of knowledge about the fire in their" mental file" about climate change. "Climate change is getting worse—there's another fire," they might think. 

Others, however, do not believe that climate change is a real problem, and they don't associate it with fires.  So when they hear about the same forest fire, they might think "someone was careless," or "the forest was badly managed," or "fires are good for the environment" (as many fire biologists say).  They define the problem according to an "irresponsible person," "bad government," or "fire ecology" frame. 

So while no one is disputing that there is a fire, what that fact means can be very different for different people. Beyond their beliefs about climate change, people, or government, the fire also has one meaning for the people directly threatened by the flames, a different meaning for those who have asthma and fear their air filling with smoke, a different meaning for firefighters, for insurance company workers, and so on.  

Since these frames are based on a lifetime of experience, they are highly resistant to change  (especially after one's formative years). When someone encounters an idea that runs contrary to their frame, rather than changing their frame, they are much more likely to change or dismiss the contrary idea, no matter how "rational" it appears to be. 

Frames are also group phenomena--they reflect what we've learned from the larger social groups in which we live.  If we reject a frame, we are, in a way, rejecting the group itself--which can come with a significant social cost.

Frames are also group phenomena. While our frames are, to some degree, based on personal experience, they mostly reflect what we've learned from the larger social groups in which we live. It is in this way that we are able to tap into the cumulative insights of our peers and our ancestors—and to be accepted by our group(s). These collective frames enable us to build the collective wisdom of a community, while also assuring that members of the community are close enough to "on the same page" to be able to work together successfully as a social unit.

This means that rejecting a group's frame also implies a rejection of some vital aspect of the social group to which one belongs. That, not surprisingly, comes at great cost and is, therefore, hard to get people to do. In order to maintain the needed group cohesiveness, virtually all groups develop complex and strong normative structures designed to keep people their members in line. This means that those who deviate significantly almost always face strong sanctions for doing so.

So, how does framing affect current events?

Framing COVID-19

When we all learned that there was a weird new disease showing up in China, most of us didn't pay a whole lot of attention.  In January, 2020, that information probably went, for almost everyone except Chinese people, into a category or filter of "not my problem."  But epidemiologists around the world understood that it was likely to be a big problem elsewhere and they put it in the "epidemic" and then "pandemic" frame pretty quickly.  As cases began appearing in greater numbers around the world, the response was based on the frames people used to explain the situation.

These frames were formed by people's past experience with and/or knowledge of past pandemics; their general attitude about health, medicine and science; their attitude about government, government warnings, and government actions; their age, their general health, where they live, their political views, and many other factors.  Although many things contribute to the way we frame COVID-19, political views and where we live  (themselves somewhat linked) came to be particularly important. 

By and large, during the first few months of the pandemic in the U.S., "blue" (Democratic/liberal) states were harder hit by the virus, and for that and possibly other reasons, most of these folks tended ascribe to what might be called the "every-life-matters" frame.  Since every life matters, governments took strong measures to try to protect lives.  They issued stay-at-home orders, and closed vast numbers of businesses, only allowing essential workers to venture out and essential businesses to operate.  Most people followed those orders, and also followed further safety guidelines such as wearing masks and social distancing when they did went out.  Liberals also decried the Republican response, which they saw as favoring businesses over lives. [1] 

Meanwhile, red (Republican/conservative) states downplayed the threat of the virus, claiming that liberals were "overreacting," that this was "just another flu," and they often did not impose stay at home orders or close down businesses until the pandemic was much farther along.  Following what might be called the "it's just the flu, don't overreact"  frame, conservatives have been quick to open back up, and to urge Democratic jurisdictions to man up and open up for the good of the economy.  As we write this in early July 2020, there is some indication that this attitude may be changing as a fearsome new wave of COVID-19 seems to have struck all across the country.  How Republicans ultimately frame this surge in cases remains to be seen.   

Framing George Floyd's killing and Race in America

Republicans and Democrats likewise had different frames about the George Floyd killing and the events that followed.  Conservatives have long been strong advocates of "law and order," supporting heavy-handed policing, particularly in high-crime areas, and they were likely to assume that whatever action the police took, it was justified. Liberals, on the other hand, and Blacks overall, are more attuned to a social justice frame, and were likely to interpret Floyd's killing as racial injustice.

Similarly, conservatives tended to describe the events following Floyd's death as riots.  They saw the violence and looting as proof that Blacks were out of control and should to be repressed to reassert "law and order." Liberals, looking at the same events with a racial justice frame, were much more likely to describe the same events as legitimate, even necessary, protests and if looting and violence occurred, while it was unfortunate, it was forgivable, given it hardly matched in scope the harm that has been done to the Black community for centuries.

Why Do Framing Differences Matter?

One side describes a situation as a problem that needs to be fixed, while the other does not.  But both of these problems—COVID and racism—are not problems that can be fixed by one half of the country and not the other.  As long as we stay divided on the definition of the problem, no effective solutions can be developed.

So why do these framing differences matter?  First, one side describes a situation as a problem that needs to be fixed, while the other does not.  But both of these problems—COVID and racism—are not problems that can be fixed by one half of the country and not the other.  As long as we stay divided on the definition of the problem, no effective solutions can be developed. Further, our political leaders, at least at the Federal level, tend to cycle back and forth between those who subscribe to one frame, then to the other.  That means that each new administration tries to undo the "mistakes" that were made before—for instance, the Republicans attempted to repeal the Affordable Care Act (aka "Obamacare") and reverse the abortion ruling, Roe v. Wade, when President Trump came into office.  So rather than making sustained progress on anything, whatever progress is made by one side each term is likely to be undone by the other side during the next presidential term.

Second, to the extent that each side blames the other for the problem and fails to see their own role in perpetuating the problem, we are only going to deepen our society's polarization and inability to work together to solve mutual problems.  The catch phrase "we're all in this together"—which is, in essence, another frame—applies to COVID-19 and it applies to racism.  It also applies to climate, it applies to the economy, health care, crime—all our social problems.  None of the problems are White problems, Black problems, or Brown problems, although they do tend to affect White, Black, and Brown populations differently.  But the problems are of ALL our making, and they are going to take action by all of us of all colors and political persuasions working together to solve them.  

That means that we need to stop blaming each other for what's going wrong, we need to start recognizing our own role(s) in exacerbating these problems, and we need to start working with others—including others of differing political views from our own—to start figuring out ways to address these problems.

What Can We/Should We Do About This?

Since current conflict dynamics seem to be taking us to the brink of catastrophe, how can we change things, given that people mostly think in terms of frames and not rational argument?

Sometimes, people encounter compelling information that runs so contrary to their frames that it forces them to go through the painful process changing their frames.  As we write this, for example, it is quite possible that the ongoing explosion of COVID-19 cases, even in Republican areas, might force those who had adopted the "It's just the flu, don't overreact"  frame to revise their view.

Beyond this, we can look to the experts on framing, who are not just framing scholars, but also advertisers and propagandists.  Advertisers and propagandists who understand frames have long known that the key to getting people to do what they want is to flood them with stimuli that bring a desired frame to the fore. To adverstise beer for example, young, beautiful people are shown drinking beer and having fun. After seeing such ads over and over again, people begin associating beer drinking with personal beauty and fun times—and they buy and drink beer, so they, too, can look great and have fun.

Effective political speech is much more focused on emotionally-compelling symbolism than rational argument.

This is why effective political speech is much more focused on emotionally-compelling symbolism than rational argument. This is something that politicians who come out of the business and advertising world understand. (If you don't play this game you can't succeed in business.) It is, however, something that is difficult for people from a policy background (where the focus is on academic argument) to understand. This explains why Democrats have trouble winning elections with blizzards of position papers and plans. It also explains much of Donald Trump success—he was a businessman and TV showman who does, very much, understand advertising. It also shows the wisdom behind Joe Biden's argument that the election is a fight for the "Soul of America." [2]

Invoking a frame for the purpose of refuting it doesn't work—it does the opposite. Instead, use a "truth sandwich": True-statement/fasle statement/true statement--start and end with truth.

In this context, it is worth mentioning linguist and political framing expert George Lakoff's observation that invoking a frame for the purpose of refuting it doesn't work—it does the opposite.  He explains the the first thing people do when you say "Don't Think of An Elephant" [3] (the title of his most famous book), is to think of an elephant. So when you attack someone's frame by naming it, it just gets other people who you are wanting to influence to think in terms of that frame and the already-decided opinions it evokes.  To combat this, he recommends what he calls a "truth sandwich" which attempts to counteract falsehoods embedded in opposing, undesirable frames by surrounding them with the images and facts embedded in the alternative, more truthful frame. So, if a Democrat were to talk to a Republican in an effort to get them to change their "it's just the flu, don't overreact frame," the Democrat could start by talking about how the summer 2020 surge of cases in Florida, Texas, and Arizona is causing great suffering, many deaths, and is straining the health care system far past its limits, making care unavailable to many who desperately need it (truth frame). The Democrat could continue: "while the situation might have seemed 'just like the flu' in its early stages," (false frame) "it clearly is no longer that manageable. But, if people would take a few simple steps, such as wearing masks and social distancing, they could dramatically improve the situation (truth frame again.)" So truth-false-truth: a "truth sandwich." This can be made even stronger by focusing more on real people's stories, not just statistics, and being respectful with suggestions for change, not preachy or arrogant. 

As Carrie Menkel-Meadow observed in her post, the exact words we use to persuade people matter greatly.  Politically-charged phrases denote much more than a few words—they denote an entire way of seeing the world.  "Defund the police" denotes an understanding that police are usually (or even mostly) wrong and they do more harm than good in the effort to keep our neighborhoods and cities safe.  It sees police (and perhaps the entire justice or city/county/state/national administration) as racist, and in need of a fundamental overhaul. It does not at all acknowledge the role that citizens themselves play in making communities unsafe.  Finally, it's important to understand the role that words play in this. We all associate specific, politically charged words and phrases with different frames and ways of thinking about a conflict. This suggests that a big key to getting people to reframe a conflict is to use a more constructive choice of words to encourage people to think about conflict in more constructive ways. As Menkel-Meadow suggests, rather than "defunding" or eliminating things,

"shouldn’t we be adding, spreading equitably what some, but not all, have?  Are “Redo” Redesign” “Remake”  yes, even “Reform” (re-form!), rather than “de-fund,” slogans we can all get behind? Shouldn’t we be talking about  “Re-funding” Social Services when that is what we want? We want de-militarized police, community safety and appropriate non-violent resolution of some situations.

Another way to deal with the contradictory frame problem is to work to invoke overarching shared frames.  Usually there are identities that people share, even when they differ in profound ways.  Many women share the "mother" frame, even if they differ profoundly on political views.  Both women and men might share an "athlete" frame if they participate in sports, or they might support the same sports teams if they live in the same city. In the past, when a community faced a crisis, there was a tendency for that community to pull together to help each other.  Communities after natural disasters usually pull together across political lines. Republicans and Democrats pulled together after 9-11.  So far, we haven't come to see either race or COVID-19 as a bi-partisan crisis, but both are.  If we can come to understand that we are, as they say "in this together," that becomes an overarching frame that might overcome the partisan frames that are still predominant now. 

The most promising path forward for our deeply-divided society is through a strategy that focuses on amplifying and demonstrating the importance of these more commonly-held frames. 

This all suggests that the most promising path forward for our deeply-divided society is through a strategy that focuses on amplifying and demonstrating the importance of these more commonly-held frames.  At the moment. unfortunately, our grievance-based, mobilize-the-base politics; hybrid, disinformation warfare tactics being pursued by foreign powers; and media conglomerates who have figured out how to drive traffic to their platforms by accentuating divisive issues are all pushing things in the opposite direction.

It's time "we, the people," (a shared frame) start taking control to change that. 


[1] McKay Coppins. "The Social-Distancing Culture War Has Begun" The Atlantic.  March 30, 2020.  https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2020/03/social-distancing-culture/609019/

[2] Jennifer Rubin. "Joe Biden had it right from the start. It’s a battle for the soul of the nation." The Washington Post. May 31, 2020.   https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/05/31/biden-had-it-right-start-battle-soul-nation/

[3] George Lakoff. Don't Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate--The Essential Guide for Progressives. Chelsea Green Publishing. September 2004.  See also, The ALL NEW Don't Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate​. Chelsea Green Publishing. September 2014.

Metagraphic picture credits:   Covid from: https://www.cpf.navy.mil/COVID19/, elephant from: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/9b/Republicanlogo.svg – public domain. Donkey from: https://www.flickr.com/photos/donkeyhotey/6262125702, created by DonkeyHotey CC BY 2.0