Tools for Changing the World

Social psychology for social good

Change the frame, change the picture

July 25th, 2011

FramesI’m writing this from what I suppose is best described as a retreat. The grounds are beautiful, the people are warm, the mood is welcoming, and almost any non-destructive behaviour is accepted. For many of the regulars, coming here feels like coming home, and I can see why. I love it here.

Unfortunately, I don’t fit. I don’t belong. The premise of the whole experience is a belief system that I don’t share and can’t make myself share.

It’s surprisingly painful. It would have been easier if it weren’t such a wonderful place; I could have just rejected the entire activity. But I value so much of it that being within it but separate from it is… well, it hurts.

I can’t change my belief system, and I don’t want to. But I can change the way I interpret the conflict between my views and everyone else’s. Or at least I can try.

This is a tactic called “reframing” and it’s been used a great deal in psychology, although seldom in the field of persuasion. For example, one study found that reframing a teen’s behaviour (such as by pointing out that certain behaviours are normal among adolescents) was the only approach that significantly improved that teen’s attitude in a family therapy session. Another found that reframing a compliment helped people with low self-esteem to respond positively to it.

We may be able to use reframing to spur larger change, too. Public health workers have argued that the current perceptions of obesity are blocking our ability to deal with it effectively. Instead, they suggest reframing to focus on “health at any size”, a phrase that emphasizes exercise over dieting.

A fascinating new paper addresses the way Americans view public benefits programs. The authors suggest that opponents of these programs frequently see program recipients as undeserving – so it might help to point out that two thirds of all adults receive some type of public assistance at least once during adulthood. Those who favour a focus on the economy might respond to the fact that public benefits stimulate the economy: Medicaid payments support health care staff, who purchase new items, and so on. Reframe identical circumstances with a different focus.

ReframingSome of you might remember a previous post on how metaphors change our perceptions, and this is a similar approach. Reframe a minority presence as cultural diversity. Reframe an environmental initiative as a money-saver. Reframe disability activism as a way to benefit from underused members of society.

Myself, I don’t know whether I can reframe my outsider identity as something more positive, like a connection between two worldviews or someone with a foot in each of two camps. It’s not easy to change perceptions, of oneself or anything else, but I think sometimes it’s worth trying.

3 comments on 'Change the frame, change the picture'

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  1. Rob

    25 Jul 11 at 11:10 am

    If I didn’t know better, I’d swear you were visiting our relatives in ShoppingMallistan.


    Carol Reply:

    Not certain I’d have quite the incentive to reframe in that case!


  2. Rob

    28 Jul 11 at 2:12 pm

    Well, you’d reframe something, but then we’d both have to move somewhere without extradition treaties.


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