How Framing Differs from Spin

This article is part of the Weekly Workgroup Series published by the Rockridge Institute in early 2008. It was written by Joe Brewer (Rockridge Institute staff member) on Wednesday February 6, 2008.

This week’s discussion is inspired by an excellent question posed on Rockridge Nation by member dvdb:

What is the difference between framing and spin?

The differences between framing and spin are of fundamental importance to the work we do at the Rockridge Institute. I’d like to suggest three key differences to get the conversation going:

  • Frames always present.
  • Framing for Truth vs. Spinning to Deceive.
  • Self-knowledge, not manipulation.

Learn More

You can read these Rockridge materials to learn what we’ve written in the past on framing and spin (links coming soon):
Simple Framing (February 14, 2006)
Framing Versus Spin: Rockridge as Opposed to Luntz (June 12, 2006)
Thinking Points Discussion on Frames (March 23, 2007)

Frames always present

First and foremost, I want to make clear the fact that every thought you have is structured outside conscious awareness. The wealth of associations, inferences, and roles that emerge with each concept is possible because of the way information is structured and stored in the neural pathways of our brains. The mental structures that we use to think with are called frames. All words are defined within such frames. Frames are always present in the human brain and words are meaningful because of the frames they activate.

Spin is the use of language to deceive, especially to avoid political embarrassment or to accomplish underhanded political purposes. Spin happens to use framing because of the way thought is structured and words work. But framing in general is simply the use of our mental structures to comprehend the world, reason, and form the basis for the use of language.

We occasionally hear critics say things like “Why should I use framing to communicate?” This is like saying “Why should I use air to breath?” Frames are present in communication whether you are aware of them or not. The benefits of framing analysis enhance the ability to communicate, especially when the goal is to reveal key truths or express values authentically.

Framing analysis arises from the cognitive sciences and allows us to make the unconscious conscious. It allows us to be aware of what it takes to communicate effectively. And communicating truth requires the use of frames every bit as much as spin requires the misuse of frames.

Framing for Truth vs. Spinning to Deceive

One of the most important personal attributes for politicians is authenticity. Whether or not we trust a person depends on their ability to communicate their core values consistently. This is not straightforward because most thought (~98%) is not consciously accessible. Thoughtful consideration is necessary to reveal active frames.

Also, the facts alone will not set you free. Key truths can only be seen when the facts are understood, which requires the proper context for people to see them. At Rockridge, we are dedicated to the idea of framing for truth. There are key truths that can only be seen when the proper frame (or set of frames) is used.

Spin, on the other hand, is a rhetorical maneuver used to CONCEAL truth. It is used to direct your attention away from key truths that the communicator doesn’t want you to see. Spin is fundamentally about deception.

Self-knowledge, not manipulation

As I’ve already suggested, the insights gained by recognizing frames enable you to express yourself authentically. Through active introspection it is possible to increase your knowledge of your own thinking. Our work is devoted to educating the public (all of our work is published online for the entire world to see) so that you can learn more about yourself. Instigators of spin work behind closed doors, seeking to conceal their deceptions from public eyes.

Essential to being authentic is knowing what your values are and expressing them consistently.

Spin is about creating a message that appeals to people who might disagree with your real intentions.. The goal is to tell people what they want to hear in a manner that persuades them to agree with you. This often includes being two-faced and saying different things to different people. In Framing Versus Spin, there is a discussion about how Frank Luntz recommends one set of messages to anti-immigration nativists and a contradictory set of messages to Hispanics.

As you might imagine, finding the right frames is hard to do. All of the fellows at Rockridge work day in and day out to figure out what the deep frames are in health care, foreign policy, immigration, climate, and more. Sometimes we make mistakes. This is because it is difficult to reveal the conceptual structures of thought that lead to different ways of understanding the world.