Picture Frames, Window Frames and Frameworks

by Raemon 15d3rd Nov 20196 min read3 comments

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Some commenters on Noticing Frames were confused about what I actually meant by "frame." I defined it briefly as "different ways of seeing, thinking and communicating", but this was a bit vague.

I'm definitely using the word "frame" as a broad metaphor, rather than a concrete specific phenomenon. I'm not at a point where I'm sure I have a more concrete phenemonon to explicitly describe. I recognize this as an important red flag – specificity is good, and I'll try to get more concrete in future posts. For now, though, I think the broad metaphor is useful, and want to explain it slightly better.

After reflecting on the feedback, I realized it was actually three different metaphors:

  • Picture Frames (ways of communicating)
  • Window Frames (ways of seeing)
  • Frameworks (ways of thinking)

Upon reflection, I endorse using all three metaphors fuzzily rolled into one.

The past few years, I kept thinking I had figured out why resolving disagreements was hard, and kept being surprised by new ways to subtly miss each other. At first I thought the main reasons to disagree were "different beliefs", "different values", and "confusion over beliefs/values." This isn't wrong, but it wasn't nuanced enough for me to notice all the disconnects.

I've come to believe there's an important general skill, which goes something like:

Trigger: Notice when a conversation is going nowhere, especially over the timescale of months/years.

Action: Look for frame differences outside of the ones you know to make sense of, and figure out how to make sense of them.

That's a hell of a vague action, I admit. It's composed of smaller, more specific actions (which are probably easier to learn). I was worried that if I named the most specific actions I could point at, people would focus on that and lose sight of the more general problem. I'm not even certain that the "different ways of seeing, thinking, and communicating" schema is complete – it's meant to be illustrative rather than comprehensive.

Someday, ideally, there'll be a "how to" doublecrux sequence that teaches concrete skills and exercises that are each immediately useful. (I think Eli might be working on something like this). But this sequence is more about "Why" than "How", much of what I want to talk about is the overall mindset, and how various skills fit together.

I'm using "frame" to mean "the broadest possible way for two people can miss each other." I deliberately didn't use words like "ontology" or "outlook", that misleadingly sound like they mean something specific.

Attention conservation notice: if this all makes intuitive sense and you're pretty sure you understand what I mean by 'frame' you can probably skip the rest of this article.

Holistic Frame Evaluation

Why focus on all three ways-of-seeing/thinking/communicating at once? My experience is that they often come all muddled together. It's useful to be able to separate them, but their default state is often intertwined.

In the previous essay, I listed some possible frames, including:

  • Gears-Oriented-Frames, focused on physical processes in the world and how they interact
  • Feelings-Oriented-Frames, focused on what emotions and inner experiences the conversation participants are having
  • Power-Oriented-Frames, focused on the relative status and power of the participants and how that fits into the broader world

(Again, these are not at all meant to be comprehensive. These are just a few examples, like pointing at a rabbit, a bumblebee and a human and saying "Hey, I'm talking about animals. Here's a few examples of animals to get the idea across of what an animal is.")

This time I'll try to cross-reference those frames with the Seeing / Thinking / Communicating schema.

Ways of Communicating

Taymon on Facebook remarked, regarding my previous post:

The conflicts you describe are when each participant has a false belief about the other participants' objectives, and so the things they say, that they expect to help accomplish those objectives, don't.

The whole thing doesn't seem that conceptually difficult.

You seems to have had something bigger and harder to grasp in mind, but I still don't feel like I have much of a clue as to what it is.

I have at least a bit more in mind here. But, "people have different conversational goals" is at least one major source of frame conflict, and is perhaps the most obvious one. So let's start there.

Picture Frames, and Context

These pictures are identical, but have different frames.

(Image by Ken Rementer)

The frame conveys information about the intent of the photo. The first is a polaroid that was probably taken off-the-cuff. The second and third look more like deliberate family portraits. But the third's elaborate frame conveys some additional "specialness" and pride.

Similarly, the same conversation might have very different contexts depending on who's participating, how they relate to each other, and what they think they're talking about.

Picture Frame Examples

[note: political examples can be unnecessarily mindkilling, but it seemed useful to have a concrete example that readers would likely be familiar with. Most of the examples here aren't too dependent on which position is right or wrong]

Alice and Bob are in a newly formed relationship, arguing about the politics of minimum wage. 

There are some "obvious" frame disconnects that can happen here, if, say, Alice, thinks that the primary focus of the conversation is to figure out optimal policy, and Bob thinks it's to avoid relationship conflict.

(Or: if one of them thinks the goal is to figure out who is smarter and more socially dominant in their relationship)

There could be subtler mismatches: 

Maybe they both think the conversation is more about their relationship than their preferred policies. (Apart from voting once a year, neither are major political activists). 

But Alice enjoys barbed wit and thinks of the argument as a playful banter, which is a sign of comfort-with-each-other. (She thinks they are both comfortable enough with each others positions that the relationship is not at risk if they disagree too hard). She thinks it's fine to make straw-man-ish-jokes about Bob's position.

Bob thinks that political disagreement is evidence of longterm incompatibility, and thinks that Alice's banter is signaling disrespect, and strawmanny jokes make him feel particularly "not seen."

Ways of Seeing

Windows, Lenses, and "Tuning In"

Take a look at this street:

There's a lot going on here. But, imagine that you live in a house with only one window facing this landscape. Your impression of the landscape might depend a lot on where that window is placed.

One window showcases a city skyline. Another primarily focuses on trees and sunset. The third reveals a pile of construction rubble.

Sometimes people have the exact same goals for a conversation, and yet nonetheless face weird disconnects because they aren't looking at the same parts of reality.

It's compounded if they have different goals for the conversation and also aren't looking at the same parts of reality. Even if they say "oh, I just realized we were coming at this conversation with two different goals", they'll keep talking past each other.

Another metaphor here is the lens, where two people are looking at the exact same scene, but they perceive it differently.

Window Frame / Lens Example

Alice and Bob are still arguing about minimum wage. Here are few different sets of "windows" they could be looking through.

Different priors and past experience

Alice has read some econblogs and the first question she's asking is "what do the laws of supply and demand say about this? Is it marginally profitable to hire an additional person?". Bob has read some socialist blogs and his first questions have more to do with "what is fair, what do people deserve, who has power and how much surplus do they have?"

Bob has a bunch of friends struggling to get by on minimum wage who can't pay their bills. 

Alice has friends trying to run small businesses, constantly frustrated by the difficulty of navigating regulations. 

They might believe each other's points are real and relevant, but feel frustrated by each other's missing moods, which leads them to be suspicious of each other.

Different needs in the moment

What if Alice and Bob are having both a "Picture Frame" and "Window Frame" mismatch?

Maybe it's a situation where Alice thinks the point is figuring out optimal policy, and Bob thinks the point is to figure out longterm relationship compatibility, ideally demonstrating that they care about each other. So at the beginning of the conversation, Alice is casually dismissing arguments she thinks are bad as "stupid".

In this scenario, both Alice and Bob have enough relationship/conversational intelligence to notice that that's happening. They have a meta conversation about their respective needs, and then continue in the conversation to both figure out optimal policy while attending to Bob's feelings and their overall relationship.

But...

...it's still the case that Alice is very practiced at noticing how policy positions fit together, and not practiced at tracking Bob's facial expressions, emotional state, or how her comments might be coming across. If part of what Bob wants is to feel seen, then Alice might still not do a good job of doing that because Alice is still used to looking through the "policy cause-and-effect" window than the "feelings and relationships" window — even when that's explicitly her goal.

Part of navigating frame differences is learning to tune into different aspects of a conversation.

Ways of Thinking

Frameworks, and how ideas fit together

Then, there's how ideas fit together. The framework of a car can fit different sorts of pieces into it than the framework of a bridge. There are different ways of conceptually connecting things. 

vDifferent ways of thinking afford different ways of combining evidence, and permit different sorts of answers.

In many social environments, "authority" is treated as a legitimate source of truth, and "the boss/priest/god says so" is a legitimate argument to bring to the table. 

In an empirical/rationalist framework, authority often still matters, but ideally argument screens off authority.

Even among people trying to reason carefully, there's a lot of disagreement about how to think. Frequentist vs Bayesian? Probabilistic vs Proof Based? How do you evaluate a study? In what circumstances (if ever) are personal experiences better evidence than a study? 

Do certain types of evidence have a track record of being biased or harmful to you? (Or: do they have a track record of... making you uncomfortable and annoyed and you don't like to think about it?)

All of this can interface with Picture Frames or Window Frames. You might have different ways of thinking you employ in different domains. Your way of thinking may bias which sort of evidence you look for and how seriously you take it.

Framework Example

Alice and Bob are both arguing about minimum wage policy through a materialist cause-and-effect lens. But Alice's opinion is shaped by econ 101 models (i.e. raising prices on a thing should decrease the amount of it), and Bob's opinion is shaped by having read some studies saying that raising minimum wage hasn't caused more unemployment.

Bob thinks empiricism is the ultimate judge, more important than theory. Alice thinks the theory is robust enough that she defies the data, and argues Bob's studies are either cherry-picked or the result of a messy, underpowered world.

At least part of their discussion is going to need to address the question "what counts as good evidence." (Exactly how to go about that is, in this post, left as an exercise to the reader)

Composite and Unconscious Frames

What makes this all quite hard, in my experience, is the way this is all intertwined. Often there's multiple layers of Window-Frame/Picture-Frame/Framework at play, and it's not obvious how important each of them respectively are.

There also can be multiple "contents of frame", involved in each layer. A person's window-frame might be focused on both economic theory and also power dynamics (or subtle subsets of each other those). 

And some of this may be totally unconscious: sometimes Alice is quite confident that her goal is simply to point out good policy, but she's unconsciously employing a strategy optimized to make her feel smart and in control, and Bob may be more tuned into the later than the former. 

(Or, Bob may think he's noticing important social moves that Alice is pulling, but Bob has become hypersensitized to social nuances and is noticing things that honestly aren't there, or aren't nearly as causally relevant as he thinks)

What exactly to do with all this is tricky, and context dependent, and requires building up a few different skills (many of which are hard to convey via blogpost). But it seems useful to at least have a rough sense of the landscape.

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