Perhaps your problem with the testing you did on names for gas is that you were not using moral frames with basic language - no toxic gas or dirty fuel.

But it is also important to understand that framing is meant to be an empirical approach. Just because someone had an idea for a frame that they tested, and it didn't work out, that doesn't mean that framing theory is wrong. It means your idea of the frame that might work is wrong.

If you are doing framing properly, you will have tested it to be sure of cognitive traction before you use it.

Did you do any depth interviews first to help develop frames to test, or did you just jump right in? And did you do any talk-back testing?

You back to basic points are all well covered by framing approaches. Anat Shenker-Osario is very clear about having an entry point in your message that connects with the audience and she always dial tests with different messengers.

And doing it over and over for a sustained period of time is at the heart of Lakoff's message. It's all about the Hebbian learning - synaptogenesis and myelination doesn't happen in a magic instant, it takes months of repetitive stimulus.

Expand full comment

Thanks for your comment.

No we didn’t do any qual beforehand. But why would we expect there to be some other term - like toxic gas or dirty fuel - that people are familiar with and connect with? It’s a subject most people just don’t have thought of before. So we are left with inventing a term, which then runs into a few problems: firstly no journalist will use it because it’s so loaded, but secondly no one is going to know what it means. That’s my point about familiarity in the original piece. The value of the name itself is just marginal to the story it’s a part of.

I am sure if you subjected focus group participants to hours of conversation they may eventually tell you they like “toxic gas” as a term. But that is one my problems with a lot of qual work that sits behind framing - it simulates a level of engagement that is just not how our target audience in real life is going to see or experience our messaging, which will be as they are flicking through Facebook or browsing the news etc. That was my point about attention, if you don’t tap into a frame they’re already familiar with it’ll bounce off them.

The appropriate use of research here would be to ask a focus group or a survey panel: “What reasons do you think there might be to oppose a gas plant being built next to you?” Or “what do you think the benefits of switching to an electric cooker might be?”, drawing out the language and stories they use and then just playing that back to them consistently through campaign content, so it beats out any competing doubts they may have.

I don’t think it’s more complicated than that. And I’m sure you’d agree with that also. But my main issue with framing theory is it - or at least the way it’s used by practitioners - takes us away from this simplicity and encourages us to think we can reprogram that language and those stories, especially if we find them imperfect in some way.

To make it more concrete, take one random example I found in my research: this paper which tells us the way people currently engage with issues of global development is problematic and needs to be reprogrammed. https://www.bridge47.org/sites/default/files/2018-12/15_finding_frames_1.pdf

My argument is we don’t have the power to do this! We can engage people where they are, and bring them towards us on that basis, or we can be ignored.

Expand full comment

Thanks for your reply Steve. Current recognition levels is not really the point with framing research. It's about identifying the potential cognitive traction of a frame if you then scale it and sustain it.

Take how 'couple penalty' was used by the right in the period from around 2005 to 2015. If the Centre for Policy Studies or Centre for Social justice had tested for recognition of that phrase before they started to employ it, then they would not have found anything much. It was an innovation and a very successful one. It activated a relative fairness moral frame, and caused people to think about the tax and benefits systems as a matter of relative merit and how much different groups deserve, rather than in terms of adequacy for all who need it.

We don't hear 'couple penalty' now because it served its purpose with the tax and benefit reforms made by the Cameron government. But it was very successful in its day, being taken up not only by right-wing columnists, but also the supposedly neutral IFS who naively published a paper with 'couple penality' in the heading.

Left-wing campaigners often take the erroneous view that if you don't get immediate recognition of a phrase or frame in polling and focus groups, it should be steered clear of. But 99% of the time they are not doing the right kind of testing to identify potential cognitive traction from sustained use at scale.

The right seems to be intuitively better at understanding that if you want to change the terms of debate, you may need to literally change the terms of debate.

Yes, they have structural advantages that make it less of an uphill struggle for them, We can say - 'Oh, well it is easier for them to do that. The right dominate the press. We have a right-wing government.' All true. But it makes it no less necessary for the left. And when we have had left-wing governments, they haven't understood the opportunity and taken it properly.

The right did not get to that position of infrastructure dominance by accident. They have pursued an infrastructure strategy for decades. Their decision to do that is thoroughly rooted in cognitive science. There is a fascinating chapter of history behind this that nobody seems to know and I have never seen written about.

I think there's a lot wrong in the approach that you took that nobody with strong experience in framing would do. But rather than going into detail on that, I am instead itching to share this hidden chapter of history, as I think it is an important story for understanding why the left has been on the back foot for decades.

We credit Donald Hebb with formulating the contemporary understanding of how brains learn and self-organise in response to stimulus. However, while he was the first person to publish this theory, he was not the first person to develop it.

Three decades before Hebb, in the early 1920s, an economics student in Vienna with a side interest in psychology wrote a paper outlining how neurological organisation may work in response to external stimulus. He didn't publish the paper, but returned to it again publishing his book 'The Sensory Order' shortly after Hebb in the 1950s.

This is the root of neuroplasticity and the idea that 'neurons that fire together wire together'. Understanding neurological organisation as the root of cognition, and understanding, as Lakoff puts it, that 'changing minds means changing brains', is at the heart of the theory of change behind framing approaches.

Who was the 21-year-old student? A future Nobel prize winner in economics called Friedrich Hayek.

So, if you are the first person to have what is since proven a reasonably accurate theory of how brains organise and change, and you also passionately believe that politics and economics must go in a different direction to the mainstream views of the day, what sort of approach might you take?

He innovated a devastating effective infrastructure-focused approach. It was so successful that anyone on the left is now up against it in all we do, with the playing field strongly slanted against us.

First, he established Mont Pelerin Society in 1947. The society attracted an ardent supporter in Anthony Fisher, who founded the IEA with Hayek in 1955, the first of a global network of right-wing infrastructure organizations that Fisher would found or inspire as he applied the theory of change given to him by Hayek.

They lobbied wealthy allies to pursue media ownership and to sponsor studentships and teaching posts in universities. Fisher founded the global Atlas Network 1981, which now has 502 partner organisations in 98 countries. It coached 1,250 people in 2019.

They lobbied the Koch brothers who took up their theory of change too. Fellow travellers founded the conservative Leadership Institute in the US, which since 1979 has trained 200,000 right-wing activists, journalists and politicians, and created 1,700 campus groups.

It's their world now, with the left inept underdogs, still trying to defeat the infrastructure model with a gatekeeper model.

Look around the left from political parties to progressive NGOs and unions and you see none of the organising and infrastructure building. Instead, our professional comms gatekeepers focus on our select group of leaders and experts. We hone for them the perfect messages that will somehow be so inherently persuasive that they overcome the overwhelming dominance in the environment of right-wing worldview framing.

Neuroscience tells us that will never work. And seeing framing as just about message construction to empower our specially selected expert speakers under the gatekeeper model (a mistake made not only by its detractors but often by its proponents too) is like trying to sink the Titanic with just the tip of the iceberg.

Expand full comment

Timbo, your comment is one of the very few that shows clearly you understand Lakoff's theories, empirical as they may very soon become. I am @NB_Slater on Twitter. Also, thanks Steve for your post, even if we do disagree.

Expand full comment

That's really interesting, cheers. One thought though - the "poll tax" was in itself a reframing. The government wanted to call it the "community charge" (boring, suggests a membership fee). It was dubbed the "poll tax" in reference to the capitation payment that led to, er, the Peasants' Revolt.

Expand full comment

that's interesting, i had no idea about that! thanks for the clarification. I guess it's interesting to think, could the bedroom tax have been unpopular if it was just 'the under occupancy charge' (it's original title) - personally i reckon yes it would have been, but maybe it would have caught fire a bit less early.

Expand full comment