5 Psychological Reasons Why “Reframing” Behavior Works

After the last two posts on frame and reframing behavior, which we will collectively call frame control, I’m going to discuss the underlying reasons why these concepts work. This subject has been very well-received, so I decided to draw it out further so people can gain a greater understanding of frame as a whole.

For all of the times I’ve heard frame and frame control mentioned, I don’t think I’ve seen someone mention why they work in any real detail. Like with any other subject, a deeper understanding of the why makes you much better at the how. It also makes you more creative and a critical thinker for when it matters.

A clinician who has a deep understanding of how the body works in its complex, inter-connected systems will be better able to critically think when necessary than one who has only a surface understanding of a lot of the information.

A marketer and entrepreneur who analyzes why people and products gain huge followings will have a huge leg up when they’re ready to create their own products.

A weightlifter who understands the underlying concepts of what causes strength gain and muscle growth will be able to develop his own routine to maximize his success, instead of one who only knows how to follow a set routine.

You get the idea; this is the argument for understanding more about why frame control works. Now, let’s get started.

1) Language is Among Our Primary Ways of Interpreting the World

Spoken and written language is interpreted primarily in our cortex, the highest level of our brain. The underlying messages that words convey, however, primarily affect our brains on the emotional and perceptual level.

I personally believe in evolutionary psychology. It just makes sense.

We evolved to meet our needs so that we could survive and reproduce. This fact is reflected both in psychological models such as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (above) and in the structural, functional, and evolutionary development of the brain.

If you have any background knowledge on the brain, you probably know that cerebral cortex, which is responsible for our “rational” thinking and plays vital roles in not just language, but also attention, thinking, consciousness, memory, perception, and cognition, came late in the brain’s development.

You might also know that our limbic system, the center primarily responsible for emotion and perception, is located in the center of the brain above the brainstem. Since it’s so close to the brainstem, it takes priority over any “rational” thoughts we have, especially in any situation of intense emotion. Even absent intense emotional or physiologically emergent situations, it still has the priority in our order of thinking. This is because all evidence points to the fact that the brain evolved from the brainstem up.

The structures of the brainstem control the most basic functions, such as breathing, heart rate, and sensory function. The structures of the midbrain control attention, emotion, vision, hearing sleep, and arousal. These functions are considered more important evolutionarily than the “higher thought” ability that the cortex provides.

So language is primarily interpreted by the cortex. Evolutionarily, this makes sense because the most complex forms of verbal and written language are human-only traits. 

The messages contained within language, however, affect a person’s emotion and perception, which means they largely affect the limbic system.

When you effectively reframe someone’s behavior, you are changing the perception of their actions. It’s identified in our brain’s language centers in the cortex then transmits to various other areas of our brain, largely in the limbic system, to affect our perceptional “filter” of the world, and our emotions as well.

This also explains the power of positive thinking. Reframing thoughts and events in your own mind to be more positive helps you reduce stress and ruminate less on negative events. When you have internalized positive thinking, your body releases fewer catecholamines (stress hormones) during stressful situations.

Language is very complex. It can convey a wide array of emotions, thoughts, and ideas. It can spread and create ideas, manipulate people and emotions, and a hell of a lot of other things. As we know, language is manipulated professionally by the media, salesmen, lawyers, politicians, and in our own daily lives as well.

Many great salesmen will tell you that you want to hype someone up on emotion, then make them justify their purchase by making them feel like they made a rational decision. If that doesn’t tell you something right there, I don’t know what will.

2) Frame Conveys Power

Remember in the first post that frame is defined in several ways. When discussing an interaction, a frame is how it is perceived by the observers or participants. When discussing the frame of a person, it’s the way they present themselves to the world, which includes their behavior and body language.

People have evolved to view people’s frames as the primary way to determine their status. Attack their frame and you attack the person’s status and power.

Whether it’s because you intimidated someone, laughed them off, or persuasively reframed their behavior, an effective attack on a person’s frame will alter people’s perceptions of them. A good reframe puts someone on defense, makes them question their own actions, and/or persuasively changes people’s opinions on their behavior. If you have effectively done this, you can often manipulate them further or persuade others to cause harm to them in one form or another.

This is the simplest and probably most obvious reason why frame control works to the new observer. A strong frame conveys power. Undermine their power by undermining their frame, and the person will look weak and foolish.

3) Humans Have Evolved Dominance Hierarchies 

This point ties in with the last point. Like with just about any animal species I can think of, humans have developed their own dominance hierarchies.

Most groups have few leaders and many followers. There may be multiple levels of rank below the top leader, but most members are followers, and they clearly understand who the leader is a matter of naturally understanding their frame in the dominance hierarchy of the group.

As a side note, no matter where we stand in a dominance hierarchy, we generally all want to believe that they are superior to others for one reason or another.

People insult others all the time to develop the frame (and to support their ego) that they’re above them in one way or another. When attacking someone above them, this often happens behind their back simply out of fear of social consequences.

Effective reframes/insults make people take their behavior of the reframee less seriously and can lead to conspiracy against them, even if nothing is said to their face. This may or may not harm the reframee, depending on the actions of others and the reframee’s response.

Perhaps the most common insult out there is to call or imply that someone is stupid. Most people hate feeling that they’re stupid. It implies that all of their actions are misled because they aren’t intelligent enough to see things for what they are, or to do things the way they’re expected to be done.

Many times in my life, I’ve seen notably low-IQ people say successful people are stupid for not knowing how something obscure works. If this makes them feel better, fine. If they say this to you, they’re usually only worth laughing at and not engaging. They know they’re low on the totem pole, so getting overly annoyed at them often reveals insecurity.

Anyway, back to dominance hierarchies. Back when violence was more common, frame was established not just socially, but often with the threat of violence. If you put your chest out and acted like the king, you were at a greater threat of violence to anyone who wanted your crown. This status signaling made a man a much bigger target for mating, but also made him more of a threat to be attacked if he couldn’t back up his frame with potential violence.

In civilized society, people rarely physically attack each other to develop dominance. We usually only do so in sport, in self-defense, or if someone is pushed beyond their emotional breaking point. But the emotions involved in frame still exist, as does the threat of violence, even if it’s a lot less common.

So dominance hierarchies are primarily played out with words, behavior, and emotions. And all of these factors are conveyed in someone’s frame.

Sexually, women pay attention to dominance hierarchies in order to figure out who the best man is to reproduce with and ideally extract commitment from. However, both sexes pay attention to leadership to effectively survive and reproduce. This is another reason why frame is a basic component of human nature.

4) People Understand That Others are Manipulative

People intrinsically understand that people lie, and that their intentions are not always revealed by taking their actions at face value.

Children can identify a lie by approximately age three. Therefore, understanding that people are not always truthful in their actions is something that’s ingrained in us when we’re very young.

I’ve always noticed that you tend to believe a person more when you’re interacting them one-on-one. When they leave, your emotions towards them typically change, and that’s when you’re less likely to believe them, especially when someone else is convincing you not to. This feeling is why great liars and conmen always want face time to persuade their targets.

Persuasive, accurate reframing gives people insights into people’s actions, and gives them a defense and/or an attack route against their behavior. When you can reframe or define someone’s behavior in convincing terms to another person, the person has a tendency to believe it if it falls in line with their filter of the world (explained more in the next section).

I don’t think this point needs any more explaining. People know that others aren’t truthful all the time, and thus, an effective reframe shines a different light on others’ behavior.

5) Perception is Individual

Human perception is a multifaceted ordeal. As you know, we perceive the world around us with smell, taste, vision, touch, and hearing.

People can interpret any given event or statement differently depending on education, life attitudes, self-confidence, insecurities, and the quality of their cognitive and sensory function.

I’m currently reading the book Win Bigly by Scott Adams. In the book, he defines many concepts on persuasion and belief admirably well.

For one, he states that we didn’t evolve to think rationally; we evolved to survive and reproduce. He also says that human behavior is 90% irrational, or emotionally based.

I believe this second statement is very accurate in the sense that all of our behavior stems from our emotions. I do believe that with a very strong degree of emotional intelligence, training, awareness, and critical thought, we are capable to some degree of ability to examine our biases and view the world from the most “logical” perspective(s) we possibly can. However, most of the time, we’re only fooling ourselves.

Adams also explains that people use their own “filters” to perceive and describe the world. I’m sure the term has been around for a while, but I was introduced to this term by him as well.

The thought is that we view the world through a definable “filter”. For instance, the self-growth filter, the racism filter, the libertarian filter, and so forth. Since as humans our understanding of the world is limited, the way we perceive the world and our belief system all go through whatever filter we have.

The concept of “filters” also explains why when you reframe someone’s behavior, it is only believable if it makes sense to their filter.

It’s not a perfect model, but most models aren’t. Human psychology is much more complex than any model, but the concept explains human belief and behavior pretty damn well, and gives you a lot of insight into people’s beliefs and actions.

Always remember that certain beliefs are deeply embedded into a person’s belief system. For instance, if someone thinks that they’re a victim (the victim filter), and most people who attack them are racist, then reframing a person’s behavior as having racist motives is persuasive to them, whether it’s factually true or not.

As I said in the last post, reframes should be at least directionally true. Ideally, you want to be dead-on at describing someone’s behavior when you’re persuasively reframing it. However, truth is not necessary when you are dealing with delusion. And frankly, cold hard facts alone are not the most persuasive tools available.

As an example, saying “Trump’s a racist” is an effective reframe to a large group of the population with a racism filter. It’s much easier to say than going into the positives and negatives of the current immigration system, debating tax reform, whether the national debt will ever truly be addressed, and so forth.

Remember that everyone is biased, and most people are intellectually lazy, in the sense that they have no desire to truly challenge their opinions. Most people suffer from confirmation bias and only want to believe what confirms what they think they already know.

When an intellectually lazy and heavily-biased person is given an easy out on an issue instead of debating it, the reframe is effective at shutting their mind off to the message and manipulating their opinion. In a logical debate, their mindset is easily exposed when asked for a rationale for their beliefs. However, in the grand scheme of power, what matters is that they were persuaded to hold a certain belief and vote a certain way.

When you reframe a person’s behavior to something believable to another person’s filter, they start to view their actions in a way that makes sense to them. That’s why one person can think Trump gave a great level-headed speech, while another person thinks he’s just being an arrogant asshole.

On a final note, note that certain things are easily observable and are difficult to reframe. For instance, most people won’t think you’re getting emotional when you’re clearly acting very calmly, no matter how hard someone yells at you to stop getting emotional. If your behavior is in a grey zone, however, it is more prone to being believably reframed.

Conclusion

This article is some more food for thought on the subject of frame. Hopefully, it gave you more insight into human psychology and why frame control works.

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