I thought I had my thoughts, but now it seems my thoughts follow patterns called frames. Hey wait. Those frames are encoded in my brain, so they’re my frames and thus still my thoughts, right? I want to think I’m thinking for myself, I think.
Or maybe I’ll just follow my Kossascope. (More)
Who Does Your Thinking, Part II – Cultural Frames (Plus Kossascopes)
This week Morning Feature considers an intersection of cognitive science and critical theory, asking whether it’s true to say “I think.” Yesterday we looked at the concept of frames as discussed by Dr. George Lakoff in The Political Mind. Today we’ll extend frames to the critical theory concept of cultural hegemony: how we often defend a cultural status quo even when it harms us. Tomorrow we’ll explore how to help each other think better and challenge harmful frames.
Before we move on to critical theory, a bit more on the common elements of frames:
A Trip to the Hospital
Say you cut your hand in the kitchen and think “Hrmm, that looks bad. It may need stitches.” Off you go to your local Hospital. You check in with the Intake Nurse, who makes sure you’re not critical and asks you to sit in the waiting room. There are other Patients waiting. From time to time, a Nurse emerges from the door to the treatment area and calls a name, and another Patient goes back to see a Doctor. Across the way, the Gift Shop Clerk is counting balloons and bouquets. Next to the Gift Shop, in the cafeteria, a Cook is making a grilled cheese sandwich for a Janitor, who is mending a torn sleeve on his coveralls while he waits.
It’s been awhile since you checked in, and while the bleeding has stopped your hand still hurts. You’ve lost interest in the TV up on the wall, and you’ve grown bored with watching the Gift Shop Clerk count balloons and bouquets. The Janitor has mended his sleeve and is eating his grilled cheese sandwich. There’s no one else in the cafeteria so the Cook has come out to chat with him. The Intake Nurse is busy with forms. The other Nurse – the one in the treatment area – hasn’t emerged to call anyone for awhile.
You’d really like to get your hand stitched up and get home in time to watch the end of that game. But you cut yourself and need those stitches. You sense by the number of Patients in the waiting room that it’s a busy night, and you know there’s another entrance to the ER for ambulances. Maybe there was a car accident, or someone was brought in with a heart attack. Maybe one of the Patients who already went back was in more serious condition than you guessed. Regardless, they’ll get to you soon. So you wait.
It probably never occurs to you to go to the gift shop and ask if they have a sewing kit, ask the Cook if the kitchen has any antibacterial soap, then ask the Janitor – who did a good enough job mending that sleeve – to sew up your cut. You don’t “choose” not to do that. You don’t consider it because you’re thinking in a frame called Hospital, and a scene titled “Janitor Stitches Patient’s Hand” isn’t in your Hospital frame. So you wait. And wait….
Frame Narratives, Roles, and Scenes
Your local hospital is a place, but Hospital is also a set of linked neurons in your brain – a frame – that encodes the idea of a hospital, and Ways To Think About Hospitals. We often think in stories, and we have collections of narratives attached to most of our frames. Some come from personal experience, but most are stories we’ve heard from others, read in books, or seen in photos, television, or movies. Many are fictional, like the one above, but we treat them as experience anyway. I used common Hospital narratives to create the story above and, aside from the gift shop and cafeteria being beside the ER waiting room, it was probably a “close enough” fit to your Hospital frame that it felt familiar and reasonable …
… until I suggested buying a sewing kit at the gift shop, asking the Cook for some soap, and asking the Janitor to stitch up your hand. That may have seemed absurd to you, because it violated the roles of your basic Hospital frame, where Patients are treated by Doctors or Nurses, not by Janitors. The characters in that story were common Hospital roles. I didn’t describe them, but you probably created a mental image of each, and you assumed some common characteristics and duties for each of them. You probably didn’t assume the Janitor had the ability or responsibility to sew up your cut, and thus the idea seemed absurd.
Our frame narratives also include common scenes for those roles. It was easy to imagine the Intake Nurse making sure you weren’t critical; that’s a common scene in a Hospital narrative. Likewise the other Nurse calling Patients back to be treated, the Gift Shop Clerk counting balloons and bouquets, and the Cook making a grilled cheese sandwich. It was probably more difficult to imagine the Janitor mending his coveralls, in part because it’s hard to mend clothing when you’re wearing it – though I didn’t say he was – and in part because I identified him as a man and we more readily imagine women mending clothing. It’s harder to imagine scenes that don’t fit the common scenes in our frames. You can easily imagine a Doctor telling a Nurse to fetch a suture kit, but it takes effort to imagine a Nurse telling a Doctor to fetch a suture kit, and even more effort to imagine a Janitor sewing a Patient’s cut hand.
Frame Goals, Strategies, and Explanations
Although I stated your goal in that story I really needn’t have. Our frames include common goals, and Get Treated And Go Home is a common goal for a Patient in a Hospital narrative. We also recognize common goals for other roles in a Hospital: the Intake Nurse wants to get the most serious cases treated first, the Doctors and Nurses want their Patients to survive, and so on. Depending on our experiences, our frames may include worthy, selfish, or even sinister goals for each role. Our frames may even recognize that some roles have multiple goals that aren’t entirely compatible. Goals can also be positive or negative: outcomes we want to achieve or to avoid.
Our frames also include common strategies, behaviors to enable or prevent goals in that frame. You used a common Patient strategy in that story: seeing the Intake Nurse. After that you used another common Patient strategy: sit in the waiting room until called. You also employed some common Waiting strategies: watch TV, look around at other people, and so on. Asking the Janitor or other non-medical staff to sew up a cut isn’t a common Hospital strategies, so we don’t even consider it.
But even using those waiting strategies, eventually you grew impatient and began seeking explanations. We do that when a frame’s strategy (like waiting to be called) doesn’t seem to get us any nearer our goal (get treated and go home). Note that, at least so far, you didn’t ask the Intake Nurse or anyone else for an explanation. Our Hospital frame includes explanations for why you may wait longer than you’d like: a critical case brought in by ambulance, another Patient more serious than you thought, etc. In the story you didn’t verify those explanations. You assumed an explanation, and continued to wait.
Explanations are among the most useful and most dangerous parts of frames. They’re useful because most events include factors beyond our control, and sometimes we don’t achieve our goals despite using a good frame well. Without explanations, we’d have to learn new frames that may not be any better, and be prone to making more mistakes until we learn those new frames. With those explanations, we can accept and adapt to setbacks and keep using the frames we know. But it’s only a short step from there to rationalizing failure, where the explanations let us dismiss experience that should make us challenge a flawed frame.
Shared Frames and “User Support”
Challenging a flawed frame isn’t easy, because “my” frames really aren’t “mine.” They’re “ours,” in that they’re common in my cultures. Some seem to be common in our species, useful basic bundles of analysis evolved over millenia. Most are learned and/or revised in experience, and for a social species experience includes cultures. I say cultures, plural, because most of us inhabit several: our families, local communities, workplaces, civic and religious groups, and the cultures shown (and sometimes created) by our media.
And while “my” frames are linked sets of neurons in my brain, I need them to be shared in some culture. Without shared frames we couldn’t communicate or cooperate, essential for our social species. It would be like each of us designing and building a computer from scratch: it’s unlikely we’d have an Internet, because we’d format data differently and couldn’t pass it back and forth. Language is one way we standardize frames, but not the only way. Many frames include implicit elements that we recognize and act on without discussing, so we don’t put them into language.
We share frames in part so we can get “User Support.” These discussions are one of many ways we ask each other for help. That process doesn’t work well if one of us is using a truly individual frame. Before others could help, we’d first have to teach them the frame … and might well teach them the very mistakes that sent us off course. With shared frames, it’s more likely others have already traveled that course and can see where we got lost.
Chained by “Our Own” Thinking
But just as explanations can easily become rationalizations, useful shared-ness can easily become cultural hegemony: shared frames that benefit only a select few. These are often deep frames, ones we learn implicitly and apply without conscious reasoning. As we saw yesterday, we often zip through deep frames even as we consciously step through the reasoning in a surface frame. When that happens, we may practice and even defend a cultural status quo that harms us. We may think we have no choice, or seek Someone Else to blame for the problems our frames create.
We Americans like to think we’re immune to this, because of our cultural frame of Individualism. Ironically that frame actually reinforces cultural hegemony. We’re told to “think for yourself” and believe we do, and that belief discourages us from challenging frames we learn from our culture. Instead we assign and often accept individual responsibility for “decisions” reached through cultural frames.
For example: “I” decided to buy a home in a suburb and a car to get around, so my family have a fairly typical American carbon footprint: too big. But in making “my” decision, I used cultural frames; most Americans think a home with a lawn is part of “the American Dream,” and many see the automobile as a symbol of “freedom.” Car ads reinforce that frame with images of open spaces and phrases like “the open road is waiting.” So did “I” decide to buy a home in a suburb and a car, or did I process a cultural frame? To ask that is to invite a lecture on Personal Responsibility, a convenient frame for those who benefit by the status quo in our culture’s frames, and heard often even among progressives.
Asking the Hospital Janitor to sew up your cut is not an ideal strategy, but considering it might trigger other ideas like nurse-practitioners who can care for routine illnesses and injuries so fewer of us have to wait for doctors. We’re less likely to think of those ideas if we’re locked in the chains of cultural frames.
“Who does your thinking” isn’t as easy a question as it seems.
The BPI Janitor Professor of Astrology won’t sew up your hand, but his ideas might buff out your weekend plans:
Taurus – You have one more week in your sun sign. Impress us.
Gemini – You will move to the top next week. Of the Kossascope list, that is.
Cancer – Your frame for Success may need to stretch a little. Or a lot.
Leo – You’d like to have a great weekend. A truly original thought.
Virgo – This is a great weekend to rearrange your frames. Start behind your left ear.
Libra – People say you’re very thoughtful. How thoughtful of them.
Scorpio – Most people admire your thinking. If you agree with them.
Sagittarius – Yes, that would also be “User Support.” We can try that tonight.
Capricorn – You’re a truly individual thinker. No one understands you.
Aquarius – Your frames disagree about that other thing. The other other thing.
Pisces – You will become a cultural icon. Or a cultural screensaver.
Aries – The narrative of your strategy needs an explanation. That’s your role.