Lakoff on Framing the Environment

Lakoff, George. (2010) Why it Matters How We Frame the Environment. Environmental Communication: A Journal of Nature and Culture, 4(1), 70-81.

Lakoff has written a timely, provocative and useful article. I’m posting some quotes in hopes of sparking conversation about his ideas and suggestions.

“One of the major results in the cognitive and brain sciences is that we think in terms of typically unconscious structures called ‘frames’ (sometimes ‘schemas’). Frames include semantic roles, relations between roles, and relations to other frames. A hospital frame, for example, includes the roles: Doctor, Nurse, Patient, Visitor, Receptionist, Operating Room, Recovery Room, Scalpel, etc. Among the relations are specifications of what happens in a hospital, e.g., Doctors operate on Patients in Operating Rooms with Scalpels. These structures are physically realized in neural circuits in the brain. All of our knowledge makes use of frames, and every word is defined through the frames it neurally activates. All thinking and talking involves ‘framing.’ And since frames come in systems, a single word typically activates not only its defining frame, but also much of the system its defining frame is in.” (pp. 71-72)

« one cannot avoid framing. The only question is, whose frames are being activated – and hence strengthened – in the brains of the public. » (p. 72)

« This perspective on reason matters to the discussion in this forum about global warming, because many people engaged in environmentalism still have the old, false view of reason and language. Folks trained in public policy, science, economics, and law are often given the old, false view. As a result, they may believe that if you just tell people the facts, they will reason to the right conclusion. What actually happens is that the facts must make sense in terms of their system of frames, or they will be ignored. The facts, to be communicated, must be framed properly. Furthermore, to understand something complex, a person must have a system of frames in place that can make sense of the facts. In the case of global warming, all too many people do not have such a system of frames in the conceptual systems in their brains. Such frame systems have to be built up over a period of time. This has not been done.” (pp. 72-73)

« Have you ever wondered why conservatives can communicate easily in a few words, while liberals take paragraphs? The reason is that conservatives have spent decades, day after day building up frames in people’s brains, and building a better communication system to get their ideas out in public. Progressives have not done that. » (p. 73)

« The right language is absolutely necessary for communicating ‘‘the real crisis.’’(p. 74)

“‘Hypocognition’ is the lack of ideas we need. We are suffering from massive hypocognition in the case of the environment. » (p. 76)

“An important frame is in throes of being born: The Regulated Commons – the idea of common, non-transferable ownership of aspects of the natural world, such as the atmosphere, the airwaves, the waterways, the oceans, and so on. » (p. 78)

“There are many things that have to be done at once on the message front. First, progressives need a much better communications system…Second, there needs to be cognitive policy in addition to material policy…Third, framing institutes are about much more than language…Fourth, there are everyday helpful hints:

.            Talk at the level of values, and frame issues in terms of moral values. Distinguish values from policies. Always go on offense, never defense. Never accept the right’s frames – don’t negate them, or repeat them, or structure your arguments to counter them. That just activates their frames in the brain and helps them.
.             Provide a structured understanding of what you are saying. Don’t give laundry lists. Tell stories that exemplify your values and rouse emotions. Don’t just give numbers and material facts without framing them so their overall significance can be understood. Instead find general themes or narratives that incorporate the points you need to make.
.             Context matters: be aware of what’s going on. Address everyday concerns. Avoid technical jargon; use words people can understand. The messenger matters. Visuals matter. Body language matters.” (pp. 79-80)

“Successful social movements require the coherence provided by coherent framing. Think of the union movement, the anti-war (or peace) movement, the civil rights movement, or the feminist movement. The basic ideas are simple and straightforward. …The same should be true of environmentalism. Environmentalism: The natural world is being destroyed and it is a moral imperative to preserve and reconstitute as much of it as possible as soon as possible. » (p. 80)

« Truth must be framed effectively to be seen at all. That is why an understanding of framing matters.” (p. 80)

NOTE: Access to this article depends on a subscription to the journal or a relevant database. A publicly accessible related article is this:

Lakoff, George. (19 May 2009). Why Environmental Understanding or « Framing » Matters: An Evaluation of the EcoAmerica Summary Report. Huffington Post.


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