Good Framing is Central to Change

Reframing nature


Good framing is a design choice that affects behavior. Every time you see FREE online, you could interpret it in one of two ways: “I'm paying for it with my attention,” “I'm paying for it with my data.” Time is part of it in both cases.

And time is a good way to reframe a scenario. Do you remember when something like this happened two years ago? If not, then you probably won't remember what's happening now in two years. This helps dial down the chatter, zooming in a problem and getting stuck so you can move into problem-solving mode.

A bit of introspection does wonders. As we're constantly constructing stories to make sense of who we are, the inner voice helps us simulate.

But we're much better at advising others. Switch the frame of reference to what you'd say to a friend, colleague, or client, and you change perspective. Psychological distance is a form of emotional jujitsu. The cue changes the reference point, and likely the behavior.


Moving the focus from observer to observed

Alessandro di Mariano Filipepi was a painter of the early Renaissance. You may know him by the name Sandro Botticelli. He lived with his family in a poor area of the city. They say that one of his four older artist brothers gave him the Botticelli name. It means “little barrel.”

As an artist you'd want to live in the Medici's Florence. It was a prosperous and permissive society that allowed culture to flourish. Botticelli absorbed the humanitas or human virtue of the period. But a shift was also maturing in science and philosophy.

You may see some of the tension between medieval world and modern times in his painting. Idealized devotion meets classical form. I had the pleasure of seeing the Primavera (late 1470s) and The Birth of Venus (mid-1480s) more than once at the Uffizi (1581) in Florence, Botticelli's old neighborhood.

What you may not know, is that Botticelli revolutionized portraits. He used paintings of different forms and sizes and was among the first to paint people from profile or three-quarters to front. Along with the image cropping and obscured background, this created a sense of direct engagement.

Placing the image slightly off center and painting different elements from different angles. Small imperfections actually make the portrait more approachable. Botticelli's recasting of universal concepts of beauty with characteristics of a single person changes the frame of reference.

The viewer has the impression

of seeing the inner workings

of the subject's mind.

But this is done subtly. It's the opposite of much of contemporary social media confessions. And it works because of it. But context changed in Florence with the Bubonic Plague and the death of Lorenzo de' Medici.

The world rediscovered the value of this shift from observer to observed in the 19th century.


Taking something away to give something back

“The thing that makes The Prince such a timeless and scandalous work is the same exact thing, Machiavelli removes morality from the situation.” Machiavelli for Women was Stacy Vanek Smith's answer to a nagging question: why am I getting paid less than my former classmates?

As she retells the story, rather than pound the table and present data to plead her case, “I was in an emotional spiral of unjustness and upset and I never asked for a raise.” We often misunderstand Machiavelli's frame of reference: he was giving unemotional advice, real talk for complex times.

Though he lived at about the same time as Botticelli, Niccolò Machiavelli was born in a wealthy and prominent family. One that had lost its luster. The political philosopher and statesman became secretary of the Florentine republic.

His admiration went to the learning and rhetorical skills of a Dominican friar. Savonarola's reframed narrative about government, the clergy, and the pope was gaining broader support. Until he was hanged as heretic. Nobody knows how, a few days later Machiavelli was put in charge of the republic's foreign affairs. He was 29. 

From  his diplomatic and military missions, Machiavelli learned that “one should not offend a prince and later put faith in him.” He knew from experience. As politics heated up in Florence, his dilemma became: How do I tell the truth about the rise of the Medici family without offending my patron? (also a Medici)

The main theme of The Prince is man's capacity for determining his own destiny under monarchic rule. A survival manual. Machiavelli took a hard look at how men took power and held onto it and grow it. Real talk:

“And let it be noted that there is no more delicate matter to take in hand, nor more dangerous to conduct, nor more doubtful in its success, than to set up as a leader in the introduction of changes.

For the initiator has the enmity of all who would profit by the preservation of the old institution and merely lukewarm defenders in those who gain by the new ones.”

This is the crux of the problem for women in the workplace, says Stacy Vanek Smith. They're there, but shut out of top jobs, venture funding, corporate boards, and political and juridical leadership. That last mile is still the longest.

Because humans cannot believe

the value of a new narrative.

Until it becomes how things are. And that takes a very long time. Take away the emotion and you can better meet people where they are.


Shifting the causal relationship

Companies have optimized themselves out of a lot of potentially great candidates. There are two main reasons why everyone's hiring, but nobody is getting hired: 1./ the technology and screen practices; and 2./ the salary caps.

Some industries are getting hit harder than others. The truth is that the people who have more options are staying away from the circular logic. They create their own business, freelance, change careers. This is especially difficult for the hospitality industry.

But is this a question of laziness? When we shift the causal relationship to motivation, we see a different picture. Employers have kept salaries capped, yet the cost of living has gone up. In many cases, there's also a conversation around work conditions.

Note how nobody is blaming workers for wanting higher wages. Because businesses are trying to avoid raising salaries. Hence the narrative around people being lazy or on the dole. Companies would rather decrease output.

A similar conversation is happening around supply chain issues. Arnold Kling (via Alan Jacobs) says businesses are reframing the conversation to preserve optics and dodge blame.

My hypothesis for why we observe price stickiness is that businesses fear consumer backlash. When the price is high, the consumer blames the business. If instead the product is not in the store, the consumer blames “the supply chain.” In fact, it should be the other way around—the business should be blamed for not raising prices to prevent a shortage, and the higher prices should in turn be blamed on higher costs in the supply chain.

Wages and supply are part of the same narrative. But the mainstream reframing makes them two different stories. People will pay more when they can earn more. Both issues will go away when there's a market correction.


Investing in narrative reframing

There's a strong connection between narrative and culture. Research found that historical attitudes can predict contemporary values and economic attitudes. A society's culture informs a business culture.

The Judaeo-Christian tradition shifted the focus from society—where the ancient Greeks had put it— to the individual. Reframing the narrative created the concept of personal responsibility. Nature went from immutable context to gift to humankind.

Culture shifted  from

collective participation in the perennial cycle of nature

to individual accountability.

Which of course introduced the concept of sin and punishment. Christianity introduced the idea of past (original sin), present (confession), and future (salvation).

Everyone bought into this narrative. Science did: ignorance (past), research (present), progress (future). Marx did: social injustice (past), explode the contradictions (present), justice (future). Freud joined in: trauma (past), therapy (present), healing (future).

When you shift from cycle, which involves regeneration and implies investment to the trifecta of past/present/future, use becomes usury. Because improvement is implied in the framing. If we want to regenerate, we need to invest in narrative reframing.

A technique borrowed from commercial marketing: selling individuals on socially responsible decision-making. This is creating demand for socially-responsible investing. There's more demand for ESG funds. But you may be surprised to discover how hard that is to do.

First off, the reframing may be just optics. “It’s really easy to slap the environmental, social and governance (ESG) label onto an investment product, likely increase fees on it a little bit, and call it a day.” A special kind of Kabuki theater: A Trillion-Dollar Fantasy.

“Unfortunately, it will become clear that the exaggeration of the win-win of the so-called 'investor revolution' is distracting from the work needed to reset our economic system.” The problem in a nutshell: “as currently practiced, most ESG investing delivers little to no social or environmental impact.”

Why? The win-win narrative —outsize financial returns + positive environmental / social impact—sits on an unknown: market size. Why? “There's no common definition or legal framework for ESG assets.”

Narrative framing is a strategic tool. Embedded in culture, it's very powerful and resilient. Because culture changes more slowly. Though we have managed to change nature with human intervention, nature is the most powerful force, and it's fighting back.

Good framing is central to change. Perhaps, then, paying a little bit more attention is not such a bad idea, after all.


[image: we reframed nature for commercial aims]

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