Moral Warfare 101: Frames and Your Brain

Part two in a series on the structure of political ideology

Moral Warfare 101: Frames and Your Brain

In the first installment of Moral Warfare 101, we discussed why politics is a struggle between different systems of morality. In this second installment, we introduce the very important concept of framing.


To understand moral warfare, it helps to understand frames.

What are frames? In cognitive science, frames are simple mental structures that help us define narratives.

From “The Political Mind: A Cognitive Scientist’s Guide to You Brain and Its Politics”:

Complex narratives — the kind we find in anyone’s life story, as well as in fairy tales, novels and dramas — are made up of smaller narratives with very simple structures. Those structures are called ‘frames’ or ‘scripts.’

Frames are among the cognitive structures we think with. For example, when you read a murder mystery, there is a typical frame with various kinds of characters: the murderer, the victim or victims, possible accomplices, suspects, a motive, a murder weapon, a detective, clues…

Put simply, when you hear the term “murder mystery,” the general narrative already exists in your head because it has already been “framed.” The same is true with most objects and ideas. When you hear the word “elephant,” you think of large ears, a trunk and the bulkiness of an elephant.

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From “The Political Mind”:

The neural circuitry needed to create frame structures is relatively simple, and so frames tend to structure a huge amount of our thought. Each frame has roles (like a cast of characters), relations between the roles, and scenarios carried out by those playing the roles.

Put another way, you can think of frames as shortcuts. Frames allow your brain to quickly put together information and narratives without having to relearn every single word or term. Once a frame is established in your brain, it becomes a physical part of your brain.

When you think of the word “frame,” what comes to mind? Most likely you see an image of a picture frame. The word “frame” has itself been framed as a physical object in your brain. The frame is likely made of wood or metal, because most picture frames are made of these materials. You probably have an image of a picture or painting placed within the frame, since that’s what we usually see in the real world.

Mental frames work in a similar way. We get a certain idea, picture or understanding in our minds when we hear certain words. Much of politics is a struggle to define how certain key words are framed — words like “tax,” “freedom,” “rights” and “truth.” And there is a constant need to frame issues like abortion, guns, equality, racism, etc.

If you oppose an issue, you must try to frame it in negative terms. If you support an issue, you must try to frame it positively.

Example: Consider the phrase “tax relief.” The world “relief” frames the word “tax” as an affliction or form of suffering. We generally need “relief” from things that are painful or unpleasant.

Another example: Consider the phrase “forced birth.” It frames abortion bans with a negative word, “forced,” which frames abortion bans as aggressively stripping women of their freedom.

The linguist Charles Fillmore discovered that words are all defined relative to conceptual frames. The goal of political framing is to create frames (negative or positive) around political issues. These frames are powerful because they create political belief and ideology, and become physical parts of the brain.

Once an issue is framed in your brain, it can become nearly impossible to change. It becomes part of your brain’s neurocircuitry.

Politics is a war to control brains, and framing is the most important weapon of all.

George and Gil | FrameLab

Further reading:

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