On framing and cognitive categorization

“Tell me this: are eagles large? And, next, are cabins small? If you said yes to both, congratulations – you’re right. But if you said no to both, you’re not wrong. In fact, you’re just as right as the others are.

Relative to other birds, eagles are large. And relative to other buildings, cabins are small. But if you compare an eagle with a cabin, eagles are small and cabins are large. Get it? Whether eagles and cabins are large or small depends on what you’re comparing them with. Or, as they say in the classics, everything’s relative.”

This is the way Ross Gittins starts a post in his blog, aiming to proof a very important point regarding perception and the fascinating process of constructing meaning. There’s nothing new about collective discourse being operative: it has been this way since myths and legends helped our ancestors make sense of their world, so we can say that the transmission of stories has always been around as a way to give explanations and meaning.

Two ways in which information is processed are worth highlighting. First, we organize available data inputs in cognitive contents, or constructs, that are simple in nature. People differ in how they see the world because there are differences in their personal constructs, which are “psychologically meaningful cognitive categories, unique patterns of meaning preferences” (Flett, 249). We feel anxious when we encounter information and circumstances that don’t fit with our personal constructs and are not readily understood. We create these mental boxes precisely because we are cognitively lazy and we need an easy way to make sense of our context. Unfortunately, this path is precisely what can lead to stereotypes, generalizations and prejudices, since a distinctive quality of cognition is rigidity: we have a natural resistance to change, and often a phenomenon known as failure to update takes place when we refuse to actualize our cognitive constructs.

Second, we must look at the process of framing, which is another way to explain cognitive categorization, understanding it as a mechanical process that we do automatically to make sense of our world and construct social reality. This means that audiences build reality from personal experience, interactions, and interpreted selections from mass media.
Individuals have agency, but at the same time, socio-cultural processes offer meanings readily made. This is called the constructivist media effects model. According to McQuail, social constructivism sees how media constructs social reality by framing images of reality in a predictable and patterned way, setting the frames of reference for audiences to interpret and discuss public events (Scheufele, 105).

Then we can say the substantial difference between modern day and ancient civilizations is that we seem to live in a second order reality, in a world mediated in all possible ways imaginable, where we learn vicariously to conform to the reigning norms and find contentment in this existential paradox, because its origin isn’t cultural, but economic. We can say that an acculturation process occurs between the media culture and the culture one thinks one has.

Scheufele  goes further ahead and differentiates individual frames from media frames . Individual frames are those “mentally stored clusters of ideas that guide individuals’ processing of information” and they can come from long-term ideologies and from short-term, issue-related frames of reference. Individual frames work as “cognitive devices that operate as non-hierarchical categories that serve as form of major headings into which any future news content can be filed” (p.107). And media frames are “a central organizing idea or story line that provides meaning to an unfolding strip of events… The frame suggests what the controversy is about, the essence of the issue… [and] also serve as working routines for journalists that allow the journalists to quickly identify and classify information and to package it for efficient relay to their audiences” (Scheufele, 106)

So, as Grittins points out, “…it turns out that the only way we learn is by comparing things we don’t understand with things we do understand”. For Tan, the process that takes place is media enculturation: how media influences our perceptions of facts, norms and values of society through selective presentations and by emphasizing certain themes (i.e.. Agenda Setting, Gatekeeping, Spiral of Silence). And immersed in this way that things work, its quite interesting to realize how rationalization goes against thinking: It’s so much easier to make sense out of the discourses already available than to forge one of our own.

A woman wearing tons of makeup, with breast implants, nose-job, liposuction, and such, remains a woman. And she will tell herself that, and other will likely believe her. Now, politically speaking, for big justifications you need big realities and big collectiveness. That woman needs only to convince herself, and those surrounding her, but to justify your country to go kill people to take over the oil, you need a collective justification: “This is the scenario. Makes sense? Bam! Go for it”.

Our lives of ten-hours-a-day-jobs to pay for all the symbols we consume don’t have time for brain puzzles! We find justifications to consume, to allow our government to do something, or to forgive. It is all essentially chaos. There isn’t such thing as control, though there’s illusion of control, the illusion of progress, and, of course, the illusion of freedom.

The use of a skilled utterance to drive the audience into the desired direction, the magnification of horror to justify whatever they do, the creation of huge scenarios from nothing to create and explode stereotypes that will, eventually, become their tools; this is their strategy, and we are the target.

In the same way that framing occurs, re-framing is also possible. It does take, again, a skillful team of communication professionals, but we can modify the ways in which something is already being perceived. Marketing and advertising has done this for decades and we know the term re-branding quite well. On a TED Talk, Rory Sutherland, Executive Creative Director and Vice-Chairman of OgilvyOne and Vice-Chairman of Ogilvy & Mather (the man seems to have his thinking cap on quite a bit!) gives some funny and insightful examples that we can see in our daily life to understand how frames work.

If you are at a party and you stand by the window to ponder thoughts alone, Sutherland says, you’re a lonely, friendless idiot; but if you do it while smoking, you’re a philosopher! I was recently struck when talking to a friend about quitting smoking and he said that smoking wasn’t cool anymore. And I though to myself “It isn’t?!”, I guess I see a philosopher by the window too. Another example he gives is the re-branding of unemployment as “taking a year off”. He also stresses this point further by explaining how he same phenomenon is completely different according to which group of people evaluates it: for pensioners, unemployment feels like it’s something they deserve, but for young people being unemployed feels like something forced upon them. So it seems indeed that the meaning of things, like beauty,  is in the eye of the beholder.


Bronfen, E. (2006). Reality Check: Image Affects and Cultural Memory. Differences: A Journal Of Feminist Cultural Studies, 17(1), 20-46. doi:10.1215/10407391-2005-003

Flett, G. L. (2007). Personality theory & research. Mississauga, Ont: J. Wiley and Sons Canada.

Gittins, R. (April 2011). Its all in the frame (behavioural economics). Retrieved from http://www.rossgittins.com/2011/04/its-all-in-frame-behavioural-economics.html

Scheufele, D. (1999). Framing as a Theory of Media Effects. Journal of Communication, 49 (1), 103-122.

Sutherland, R. (May 2012). Perspective is everything [TED Talk]. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/rory_sutherland_perspective_is_everything.html

Tan, A. S. (1982). Television Use and Social Stereotypes. Journalism Quarterly, 59(1), 119-122.


About fabvond

MSVU PR Masters student :)
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