Meditations on Frame: Manipulation and the Framing Effect

Welcome back to another wildly speculative article- today, we’re going to return to a topic I talked about in an article last year, the concept of frame. This isn’t going to be a continuation of that article, and to be completely honest, I’m not going to reread it before writing this one- I’m primarily looking to explore some ideas today and see where it goes. We’re going to start with the “framing effect” in psychology, then we’ll take a look at the various lenses we use to see the world as they relate to our overarching frame, and from there, how our frames compete in social situations and why that matters.

Let’s get it- but first, pause for a moment to listen to The Hellion/Electric Eye by Judas Priest to set the tone.

Imagine, if you will, that you live in a dystopian society. There’s a system in place that monitors your every move, tracks your income, purchases, and it takes 15-35% of everything you make. If you attempt to evade its watchful eye, you will be imprisoned, and if you resist, men with guns will arrive to take you by force. This sad state of affairs is not something you were ever asked to consent to, and this is enforced servitude that you were born into- the only escape from it is to flee the country or go off the grid.

Okay, get the picture?

What I just described was the IRS. This certainly sounds much more menacing than the act of filling out a W2, and that’s the point. The Framing effect is on display here- by selecting components of reality that are themselves factual but placing them in a misleading context, we can generate all sorts of responses in others. In this instance, you’ve probably never considered the IRS and the US tax code as a freakish dystopian nightmare, although if you compare it against the minuscule taxes imposed by the British leading up to the American revolution, they do seem insane. Couple this with the addition of the fact that income tax was actually ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court before being allowed via the 16th amendment.

Now, let’s get meta. In the dystopia paragraph, we have an example of overt framing, as I’m being deliberately misleading to get you to look at something in a particular light. In the explanatory paragraph, I’m using covert framing, because I cherry-picked some details to make what was first an outrageous claim into something more palatable. This, in and of itself, is an example of a persuasion technique called “door-in-the-face,” where one starts with a nonsensical claim and then follows it up with something relatively normal, which sounds reasonable by comparison. The inverse of this is the “foot-in-the-door” technique, where you get someone to agree to a small concession as a way of building compliance and moving them closer to agreeing to another demand.

To clarify, I’m not actually making an argument against the tax system, that was just an easy way to make a point. There’s a handful of other examples including a good one about automobile fatalities in this article if you want one that’s less political. Speaking of political, however, this is a large part of why I don’t talk about politics on the site- basically every interaction you’ll have pertaining to politics is an attempt to manipulate your worldview through the imposition of an external frame.

Everyone has their own frame until they accept the imposition of an external authority’s frame, at which point they adopt that frame believing it’s their own, or at least in their best interest to do so. Because we’re so predisposed to assume that:

A. Our own intentions are good,

B. We’re not the bad guy, and

C. We’re harder to influence than the average person,

We end up becoming somewhat complicit when our frame is successfully subordinated. It’s one thing for a person to hold you at gunpoint and force you to say, “I accept defeat, long live [whatever Soviet official was in charge during the timeframe of Red Dawn]!” It’s another entirely to internalize the opposition’s philosophy willingly, assuming it’s your own.

One of the best examples of the large-scale usage of the two compliance techniques I mentioned above is in the manipulation of the “Overton window.” If you’re not familiar, the Overton window is a concept created by Joseph P. Overton, which is essentially the window of ideas that are publicly acceptable to discuss. A good example of something that’s perfectly acceptable to discuss now is whether or not we should raise the income tax rate on wealthy people, when before the mid 1800s, the entire notion of an income tax wasn’t discussed at all.

The blatant use of manipulation (sometimes also called sales) techniques to sway public opinion and control or warp what’s considered acceptable isn’t constrained to just politics. Marketing and media production of all forms is filled with it. I have a bit of a weird example of this that makes a good point, but it’s going to seem odd at first, so just roll with me. I’ll go ahead and assume that you’ve watched a sitcom before- ideally for this it’d be one of those single camera sitcoms that take place in someone’s apartment or house, and even better if it’s the kind with a laugh-track.


Whoever invented the sitcom created one of the most effective means of influencing the average person’s thoughts possible. First, there’s the implicit notion that the thing you’re watching is somehow reflective of the normal household- and the further you go back in time, the more true this is. However, as we get closer and closer to the present, you start to see interesting things emerge. Consider something as simple as the dishwasher- obviously, most people in history never owned one, but nowadays, it’s basically implied that all homes should have one. Now, of course, people didn’t have lots of things back in the day, so why do I mention the dishwasher specifically?

The best product placement is the kind you don’t notice as product placement. Everyone knows when Coke pays to have someone drink a Coke, or when Chevy pays Michael Bay to blow up some Camaros (or have them fight dinosaurs, or whatever the hell goes on in Transformers movies now), that’s explicit advertising. What people don’t notice is the implicit kind- having lots of unrelated people living in an apartment, having lots of electronics or appliances the characters couldn’t be expected to be able to afford, having multiple jobs, or even wearing different clothes all the time.

Because we tend to operate on the assumption that whatever we’re watching is somehow reflective of reality, these kinds of things inform our ideas about what life is like and how the world should be. Of course, when you have a multi million dollar budget and no actual need to produce anything with more depth than mere entertainment, then you end up creating completely implausible scenarios that we can’t mirror in reality. This creates a combination of a negative stimulus (dissatisfaction with one’s life in comparison to the synthetic ideal) and a market for a solution (buy things to keep up).

Thanks, marketing.

That’s a bit of a tangent, but it’s an important bit to consider when you start to look at the many ways we’re influenced into adopting the frames of others. For most of human life, it was normal to live in a family home (or even a tribe, if you want to go further back) and cook together. Now, we’ve managed to make that more of a fluke occurrence than the norm, which is really bizarre to think about. You can apply this sort of logic to basically everything in modernity and you end up realizing that it’s easier to influence people who don’t have a stable home or family life.

Another person that’s easy to sell to or influence is one that’s been made afraid of the world- look at the correlation between shootings and gun sales, as well as attempts at gun regulation (yep, both sides get played at once in our system, thanks dualism). Historically, one of the easiest ways to get people to give up their money or rights is to scare them– fearful people will do nearly anything to feel safe, and wouldn’t you know it, there’s always some politician or salesman there to tell you just how this product or that bill is going to make everything okay again.

Just kidding, you’d never be that easily influenced! You’re a free thinking individual that doesn’t make decisions out of fear, or self-doubt, or pain, or insecurity, or anger, or any other host of irrational, emotional reasons, right?

Wrong. We’re actually really, really bad about this sort of thing, and it’s never so simple as you think. Consider the number of experiences in your life that have shaped the way you see the world. Now, consider that you didn’t have any sort of critical thinking skills in that time. Next, consider the impossibility of changing your core personality to any significant degree for any length of time.

Couple this observation with the fact that your early experiences were entirely mediated by the culture you live in. Even though for most of human history, it was not normal to go to the store with any degree of frequency, nor was it normal to have leaders who are funded by large corporate interests, lobbyists, or any other number of things that have little to do with you. It’s not even normal to have elected leaders, if we’re being truthful. Our modern world is actually ridiculously unnatural, and that’s not a judgement, that’s just an observation.

Our entire concept of what the world is ends up being fundamentally informed by what the world has been in our lives. Kids born today will not know what it was like before smartphones or the internet. No one born today was alive when public education wasn’t mandatory (before the 20s), or that a large part of the history of public schooling involves fears of the Catholic Church’s power, or that the KKK campaigned for public schooling. We’re inevitably stuck with the assumption that the world we’re born into is normal, and generally end up either fighting to return to a theoretical past state that we never experienced, or to move on to a future state that may have little bearing on reality.

People are so easily influenced that they can often be convinced to work against their own interests, or, perhaps more accurately, can be convinced to prioritize their whims over their long-term success and survival. That McDonald’s ad said the salad was a lighter option, but it’s somehow just as bad as all the other food they serve, which is basically objectively bad for you. That’s another example of a version of the Overton window- if I show you only McDonald’s food, you might think that there’s a healthy choice on the menu, when in fact everything on the menu is bad. They may make a comparison against another fast food restaurant, but guess what? It’s all effectively poison, but thank God, “I can have it (poison) my way,” and “I’m loving it.”

When you look at some of the figures involved in both politics and marketing, many of their tactics can be traced back to a real degenerate bastard by the name of Edward Bernays. He’s notable for such monumental triumphs of ethical achievement like:

  • Getting women to smoke cigarettes by claiming it was a feminist triumph, using the term “torches of freedom”
  • Convincing Americans that disposable cups were more sanitary by using imagery of venereal disease
  • Helped the CIA overthrow the democratically elected government of Guatemala

Here’s a quote from our boy:

“But instead of a mind, universal literacy has given [the common man] a rubber stamp, a rubber stamp inked with advertising slogans, with editorials, with published scientific data, with the trivialities of tabloids and the profundities of history, but quite innocent of original thought. Each man’s rubber stamp is the twin of millions of others, so that when these millions are exposed to the same stimuli, all receive identical imprints.

The amazing readiness with which large masses accept this process is probably accounted for by the fact that no attempt is made to convince them that black is white. Instead, their preconceived hazy ideas that a certain gray is almost black or almost white are brought into sharper focus. Their prejudices, notions, and convictions are used as a starting point, with the result that they are drawn by a thread into passionate adherence to a given mental picture.”

Hooray for prejudice- what a piece of garbage.

Here’s the trick: basically all advertising and political campaigning is based off of him and his concepts regarding propaganda- which he regarded was the only way to prevent chaos. I personally am not any sort of advocate for conspiracies or conspiratorial thinking, but damn, this is about as close as we get to seeing some sort of sinister agenda.

Except this isn’t a conspiracy, this is a well-known and respected public intellectual.

If this article teaches you nothing else, you should take this:

Any time you are induced to feel something, whether through the news, social networks, movies, music, or any other sort of media, you should assume that you’re being manipulated. Whenever someone pushes you closer to believing in a stereotype, there’s the wretched ghost of Bernays and his anti-human agenda at work, forcing his frame on to you, like he forced it onto the people who benefit from it most- politicians and advertisers.

When someone makes you sad, beware of the Happy Meal salesman.

When someone makes you angry, beware of the person offering righteous vengeance.

When something makes you afraid, beware of the politician promising safety.

When someone makes you feel “uncool”, beware of whatever the cool kids are buying.

When someone makes you doubt, beware of the man with no doubts.

When someone makes you hate, do not allow anyone to drive you to act on it.

When someone makes you lonely, remember, you cannot buy love or friends.

When they try to get you to give up your rights, tell them to go fuck themselves.

What lies beneath all of this?

The first and last thing they need you to give up is your belief in yourself, the belief that you are enough, or at least are capable of being enough if you really try. Security cannot be bought, dignity cannot be legislated, honor is not something they sell in stores, humanity isn’t the next invention that will change your life, and the human spirit is within you, not without.

You are enough, you can be enough, no one can help you understand this, and it will never come by purchasing or voting or being sold to.

Be vigilant, and look within.

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