The Freethinkers’ Political Textbook – Framing for Freethinkers

Part of a Series: The Freethinkers’ Political Textbook


  • Cognitive linguist George Lakoff argues that Human thinking is fundamentally metaphorical.
  • Frames are “the mental structures by which we understand and interact with the world.”
  • Framing in politics is the act of selecting particular metaphors, images etc. which activate associations we want to activate regarding our issues.
  • If we don’t frame our movement, others will.
  • We must not accept the frames of others uncritically.
  • We must stress the moral core of our message, and our positive values.
  • Look to Thinking Points, a free book from George Lakoff and the Rockridge Institute, for a more detailed analysis of framing.

Few ideas from cognitive science have become so ubiquitous as the concept of framing, popularized by cognitive linguist George Lakoff. The idea behind framing is that thinking is fundamentally metaphorical. We understand the world through various “frames”, conceptual metaphors which guide how we perceive things. Thinking Points, a book from George Lakoff and the Rockridge Institute, explains that “Frames are the mental structures by which we understand and interact with the world.” How we understand the world affects what we choose to do, as Lakoff further describes: “framing is about ideas, about how we see the world, which determines how we act.”

An example: if we receive some unsolicited advice from a friend or colleague, much of our reaction will depend on which frame through which we interpret the advice. If we interpret the advice through the “friendly critique” frame we are far more likely to respond positively and accept some of the adviser’s recommendations. If we interpret the advice through the “personal attack” frame we are more likely to become defensive, and reject the suggestions offered. It is, of course, possible to interpret the very same advice  through either frame: much depends on which frame is “activated” at the time the advice is offered. Note, too, that the frames are inherently metaphorical: one uses the positive metaphor of “construction”, suggesting both parties are engaged in building something up, while the other uses the metaphor of “attack”, with its implications of aggression and antagonism.

The frames through which we think are not inert or insusceptible to influence, but can be activated or suppressed depending on how others describe certain choices. This has clear implications for politics, and for the Humanist movement: “In politics, frames are part of competing moral systems that are used in political discourse and in charting political action. In short, framing is a moral enterprise: it says what the character of a movement is.” By choosing words, images, sounds and other symbols carefully to evoke certain frames (and suppress others) you can influence how people think about particular issues, and therefore influence how they act.

To see how this might work, imagine you have taken a large family photo, showing yourself with all your extended family. Aunts, uncles, grandparents, nephews and nieces are all gathered together, crowded into the shot. You want to hang this photo on your wall, but sadly you have limited space: you can only fit about 60% of the whole image into the frame you’ve bought. You have to make some tough decisions: who are you going to include, and you are you going to leave out? Will you preference your own blood relatives over your in-laws, or the youngsters over the elderly? Who will be positioned in the center, and who toward the edge of the frame? The decision you make – who to place front and center, who to push toward the edges, and who to leave out entirely – will be based on what you care to capture most in the picture, and will affect how those who see the picture hanging on the wall (who will never see the whole thing) view you and your family. Your choice will say something about what you care about most and, by leaving out certain people, you will influence how others see you family.

In a similar way, activists can choose to use certain metaphors, phrases, images, pieces of music etc. to show what they care about most, and to put their interpretation of the issues squarely in the center of the frame. One clear example Lakoff offers is the use, by conservatives, of the metaphor “tax relief” to refer to tax cuts. The use of the word “relief” implies that taxes are a burden which individuals should be “relieved of”. Opposing progressive frames include talking of taxes as a “contribution”, in terms of fairness (as in “paying your fair share”), or as an investment (“pay it forward” – Senate candidate in Massachusetts Elizabeth Warren does a brilliant job of reframing the tax debate in this video).

Being conscious of how the words and images we use to talk about the issues we care about (church-state protection, respect for atheists in the public square, teaching science in schools) contribute to how they are perceived and understood in the minds of the public will make our persuasive efforts more successful, and our movement stronger.

Framing Tips for Humanists

We must frame our movement, or others will. As Lakoff recently pointed out in an article on the framing of the Occupy Wall Street movement, “Unless you frame yourself, others will frame you — the media, your enemies, your competitors, your well-meaning friends.” Go back to the family photo example, and imagine someone else - someone who hates you - getting to choose how your family is portrayed, by selecting who is in or out of the frame. That’s what happens if you don’t consciously frame your own movement: others get to do it, and you won’t like how they choose to do so. This means we should continually brainstorm ideas regarding how we talk about our goals, and proactively select the language which seems to work best. We must also seek to frame our opponents, just as they try to frame us.

Don’t accept others’ frames. As Lakoff argues, “If you accept the other guy’s frame, you lose.” This means we should be skeptical about repeating the phrases others use to describe us and our goals, and always ask whether we are being trapped in a frame of another’s choosing.

Stress the positive and the moral. This piece of Lakoff’s advice to Occupy Wall Street seems extremely pertinent to the current nonreligious movement, too: “This movement could be destroyed by negativity, by calls for revenge, by chaos, or by having nothing positive to say. Be positive about all things and state the moral basis of all suggestions…To get positive press, you must stress the positive and the moral.” In trying to persuade others to support us, we can’t afford to become defined as a purely “anti” movement. “Pro-reason” will be more effective and sustainable than simply “anti-God”, “pro-science” preferred over “anti-creationism”, and “pro-church-state protection” over “anti-attacks on secularism”.


About James Croft

James Croft is the Research and Education Fellow at the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard, and has been working on the Humanist Community Project since its inception. He is a Cambridge and Harvard Graduate, and is currently studying for his Doctorate in the philosophy of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist.

9 comments on “The Freethinkers’ Political Textbook – Framing for Freethinkers

  1. Great piece! I think one can go too far with insisting on one’s own framing but nevertheless your point is well taken.

    The problem with insisting on one’s own framing is that it inhibits real conversation. Think of the abortion “debate” in which one side frames “woman’s right to choose” and the other frames “murder”. I don’t think we can make progress on this issue until the pro-choice folks address the “murder” accusation directly and until the anti-choice folks address the woman’s right to choose. Nevertheless, to your point, if that ever happens, the media are all over it, taking quotes out of context. Sigh…

    • I agree with this,Jon: real conversation is difficult if everyone insists on frames which keep from the discussion issues of central importance to others around the table. At the risk of sounding combative, though, as a movement I think we don’t always want to discuss: sometimes we simply have to win. And when we want to win, we need to frame.

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  3. Did you read Steven Pinker’s vicious skewering of Lakoff and the concept of frames? Here’s a quote and a link to his TNR review of Whose Freedom: “Whose Freedom?, and more generally his thinking about politics, is a train wreck. Though it contains messianic claims about everything from epistemology to political tactics, the book has no footnotes or references (just a generic reading list), and cites no studies from political science or economics, and barely mentions linguistics. Its use of cognitive neuroscience goes way beyond any consensus within that field, and its analysis of political ideologies is skewed by the author’s own politics and limited by his disregard of centuries of prior thinking on the subject” (

    I’m torn. I see a lot of value in the framing approach, but I am also fairly convinced by Steven Pinker’s deconstruction of the frame underlying the value of the frames metaphor. I think this will remain an open question and fertile ground for debate. Maybe we should have Dr. Pinker come in and give his analysis of the framing metaphor?

    • This is great critique! I saw some good criticisms of “Whose Freedom”, but less concrete ones of the rest of his work. What I like about the Rockridge work, which I cite and use here, is that it seems carefully-argued, limited in its claims, not too much based on neuroscience (which always makes me skeptical) etc. So I think the concept of framing is OK to use as it doesn’t rely on many of his stronger claims.

      I mean, on a basic level, it’s surely impossible to argue that the language we use to describe our issues (“tax cuts” Vs. “tax relief”) DOESN’T affect how people think of the issues…

      Perhaps I’ll make an edit to make clear that the “thinking is metaphorical” claim should be limited and understood to be true of some thinking and not all thinking.

      • The other point Pinker was making was that if you wanted to convince him of the truth of Lakoff’s methodology, he (Pinker) would only be satisfied with arguments based on data and facts, the exact kind of arguments that Lakoff says fails to move people.

        Very good series, James. I look forward to reading and commenting on the rest!

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