Frames as Thinking Contexts

What are frames

We know that people think in contexts which are well defined and which have clear semantic roles, and these thinking contexts are known as frames. For example, a school frame, when invoked, contains: textbooks, desks, whiteboards, teachers and students – these are all objects with a semantic role of their own which dictates their expected behavior or function. Frames are a well-known concept in social sciences which is related to social constructivism.

When our minds use frames

Our minds tend to evaluate objects, actions and facts as real/true when they correspond to a frame as we know it, and as not real/false when they do not. And frames are automatically invoked each time a communication process or a perceptive process refers to the frame, any of its components, or their behaviour.

Interestingly, our minds use “neuron highways” and they tend to prefer to travel over larger routes than over small and narrow streets. This is because, in its pursuit of efficiency, the mind chooses the path of lesser resistance for the chemical reaction triggered along the neurological path. And neuron connections strengthen each time we confirm a fact that already fits an established frame.

How frames determine true and false

These frames are, however, different for each person, so the evaluation result of something being real/true or not real/false is subjective. This is because frames are shaped to suit the particular context in which any given individual has been existing. In the school frame example we used above, the contents of the frame will be similar for all of us, but they will have distinct differences guided by our own school experience. Interactive boards were once whiteboards, which, in turn, were once blackboards, and then no board at all as we regress in time.

When we evaluate a new piece of information, the mind demonstrates a natural tendency to process this information via the established “highway network” it has. In this attempt to classify the emerging new reality into a pre-existing neurological pathway or frame, if the new information fails to fit there, the mind simply discards it as “unnatural”.

This explains why a single fact or information can be evaluated, perceived, and ultimately stored in memory in a different manner and with a different connotation. Frames are very, very slow to form and equally difficult to change – and sometimes this is impossible. Next time you debate something with an opponent you’d rather classify as stubborn, think of how long their beliefs have been reinforced over and over to form their minds.


Framing was first introduced by Professor Gregory Bateson, an anthropologist and polymath, in Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972). While framing and frames have been since studied and understood in a range of social sciences, frames recently became known to those outside the world of science thanks to Professor George Lakoff, a cognitive linguist.


How it relates to disinformation?

Frames play a pivotal role in the dissemination and reception of information. In the context of disinformation, frames can be used strategically to either emphasize or de-emphasize specific aspects of a message to drive a particular narrative. Repetitive narratives reinforce certain frame elements and deny the role and existence of others. Here are a few examples on how frames and framing can facilitate disinformation:

1. Nuclear Energy | Frame: Dangerous and Unreliable
By framing nuclear energy primarily in the context of meltdowns and radioactive waste, it steers the narrative towards fear and potential catastrophe, often overshadowing discussions about its efficiency, low carbon emissions, and advancements in safety.

2. Artificial Intelligence (AI) | Frame: Job Killers
When AI is framed primarily as a technology that replaces human jobs, it stokes fears about widespread unemployment. This neglects the multifaceted roles of AI, such as optimizing tasks, assisting in medical diagnoses, and creating new sectors and opportunities.

3. Organic Farming | Frame: Pure and Wholesome
By framing organic farming as the unequivocal gold standard of food production, it might imply that other methods are harmful or inferior. This can overshadow nuanced discussions about food security, scalability, and the fact that 'organic' doesn't always equate to 'sustainable' or 'pesticide-free.'

4. Alternative Medicine | Frame: Natural Equals Safe
Positioning alternative medicine strictly within a frame of being "natural" can misleadingly suggest it's always safe. This might sideline important discussions about efficacy, potential interactions with conventional medicines, and the importance of rigorous scientific validation.

Understanding how frames operate helps reveal the subtle ways in which they can be wielded to misinform or intentionally lead audiences towards particular conclusions. This makes discerning individuals more resistant to such tactics, emphasizing the importance of media literacy. As different groups fight all the time to shape the public debate and the public perception in a manner that is positive for them, the skills of critically analysing the frames presented become particularly important, especially in contentious issues.