Frames organise facts and our views of the world

Do you like taxes? Maybe you think they’re the price we pay to live in a civilised society. Maybe you think they’re essentially robbery – they represent the government using its power to extract value from the people who create it.

These are two powerful narratives about the everyday reality of taxes. That these narratives spring so quickly to mind gives credibility to research which suggests we think in hierarchies. In this view, people are likely to have settled views on the big ideas – like whether freedom or community are more important, or how much individuals are responsible for their lives. These will impact their views on types of issues, like who should look after children, and how we should pay for this. They will then evaluate specific issues that are discussed in public, like child tax credits, with reference to their lower-level views on child care and personal responsibility.

Words, and the metaphorical scaffolding they put around the world, don’t just shape our view of the world. They shape our sense of what’s possible. If you use your opponents’ language, you won’t win. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote that “to be a master of metaphor is the greatest thing by far. It is the one thing that cannot be learnt from others, and it is also a sign of genius.” 

In 2003, George W Bush’s administration scored a spectacular public relations own goal. It paused an executive order signed by Bill Clinton as he left the White House, reducing the permitted level of arsenic in drinking water from 50 parts per billion to 10 parts per billion.

Leading Republican communications consultant Frank Luntz got agitated. Luntz warned Republicans that because their party is associated with big business, “everything you say is viewed through the prism of suspicion”. If Americans had become convinced that Republicans would ruin the natural environments they loved in the pursuit of profit, no arguments to the contrary will convince them. Logical or factual arguments would be hopeless because the debate was set up on emotional grounds – and here Republicans were seen as “cold, uncaring, ruthless, even downright anti-social.”

Republicans needed to acknowledge this framing challenge from the start. That meant starting with bold strokes in their arguments on the environment, and think about how they order their messages.

  1. Every American has the right to clean, healthy and safe drinking water.
  2. Republicans are dedicated to the continued improvement of our nation’s water supply, and to ensuring that Americans have the best quality water available. We all drink water. We want it safe and clean.
  3. Today, there are minute, tiny amounts of arsenic in our drinking water. It has always been this way. It will always be this way.
  4. Based on sound science, the government’s standard is that there should be no more than 50 parts of arsenic per billion.
  5. In the last weeks before Bill Clinton left office, he issued an executive order reducing the standard from 50 to 10 parts of arsenic per billion – but he did not act for eight years because it was neither a priority nor a health risk.
  6. Before this new standard takes effect, we would like to make sure that it is necessary to make this change. The decision was reached quickly, without public debate, and without evidence that this chance will make our water appreciably safer.

Luntz’ modern lesson – that people’s views of the world are organised hierarchically – came with an Aristotelian sting in the tail. He told Republicans to change the language they use. 

In a memo leaked to the press, Luntz told Republicans to say ‘climate change’ not ‘global warming.

So why are frames effective? Many people in modern societies are oversaturated with information, and so we “use mental shortcuts to make sense of the world”. Polling in the US suggests that few voters are informed about the details of political issues, and most people regard politics as a distraction from their ordinary lives. Frames offer people the ability to organise new information quickly and carry on with their lives.

Persuasion gives your arguments the power to motivate

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