Spreading Ideas and Framing

Noah Brier wrote an interesting post yesterday about how certain ideas spread virally even when people disagree with them. His examples include Sarah Palin or Wired’s “Blogging is dead” article, where the blogosphere is buzzing about how bad an idea something is, but are still spreading the original idea far beyond its original audience because they can’t resist the urge to respond critically to it. I left a comment on the post, as it relates to some thoughts I’ve had over the years, and then realized that I would need a full blog post to unpack the one paragraph I wrote. So I’m writing one.

I had this vague intuition for years that arguing against an idea still supported the idea. I never was able to fully articulate this intuition until I read George Lakoff’s work on framing, which explained how arguing against a proposition still reinforces the proposition as stated. Lakoff’s classic example is “tax relief” – even arguing against “tax relief” reinforces certain connotations, including the idea that relief implies an affliction. So referencing a worldview, even if one is arguing against it, still reinforces that worldview.

So why do people do it? I have a feeling that we are wired to play finite games, where we are trying to win the game with the rules as stated, rather than infinite games, where part of the challenge is to step back and re-define the rules (James Carse’s book Finite and Infinite Games is obviously a big influence on me). So people get caught up in trying to win the argument within the context that they are given, rather than thinking about their overall picture and whether they are contributing to that. In other words, I agree with Noah’s point that “the best way to fight this kind of behavior is to not talk about it. But most people can’t help themselves.” We want to win the finite game, even when the game as framed will contribute to the other side’s success. To avoid that, we need to be thinking about playing the infinite game instead.

Getting to Yes is another framework for thinking about these sorts of issues, as it emphasizes figuring out your principal interests and focusing on those, rather than getting sucked into zero-sum positional bargaining about specific issues. If we go into a negotiation focused on winning every individual point, we may often fail to actually achieve our interests (much like Internet pundits arguing against certain issues, but only providing them more visibility and respectability in the process).

So when faced with a screed which makes us want to argue and tear down an opposing perspective point by point, we need to step back and figure out if we’re just contributing to their worldview by doing so. We need to concentrate on our overall vision and figure out whether what we’re doing is contributing to that end goal. We need to find opportunities to reframe the discussion to find points of commonality (e.g. both sides of the abortion issue agreeing that they’d like to see fewer unwanted pregnancies) so that everybody can feel like they are moving towards their goals.

Or, sometimes, we just need to accept that the other person is too locked into their viewpoint for us to be able to convince them. If their frames are so strong that all incoming information will be mapped to their frame, such that no facts or arguing will convince them, we need to recognize that and move on rather than continue to futilely waste our time. This is definitely one of the hardest skills to learn on the Internet.

Man. I really need to get back into writing regularly. There’s a whole trove of interesting territory around zero-sum vs. non-zero-sum thinking that I need to explore at some point. It’s fascinating stuff to me, and while it’s a frame that I’m probably over-applying right now, I think it has some explanatory power.

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