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More on Cognitive Framing

December 6, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

In an earlier post I discussed the concept of “cognitive framing” or the process whereby we contextualize our thinking based on a situation. To expand on this I offer a specific situation that both illustrates and expands the concept. This common situation is one in which a specific role is adopted and with it comes a collection of behavioral expectations. The situation I’m referring to is one in which we are the member of an audience and an observer of another individual.

First some basic notions on how we presuppose behavior in this situation. When we become a member in an audience we immediately understand our role as a direct opposite of the speaker. We are not the center of attention, we will not be speaking and our behavior in the situation is to be quiet and attentive. This is the “polite” thing to do or the behavior that our society has deemed correct for the situation. Interestingly, our behavior mirrors the behavior of the speaker who is the center of attention, who will be speaking and whose job in the situation is to be engaging, dynamic and aware of the status of the audience as a whole. As a member of the audience our awareness is to remain solely on our own behavior- any awareness of what other people are doing suggests only a lack of attention and our negligence in fulfilling the correct behavior of a member of the audience.

This distinct roles are perfect examples of cognitive frames. In this situation there are two distinct frames at play: audience and speaker. Society establishes these frames early in life and we constantly utilize/reinforce them as we mature. We know to defer to all figures of authority and do so as we encounter new forms; first to teacher, then to boss and gradually to relations of power whose distinction as authority we need to communicate an awareness of. Interestingly the cognitive frame is so well ingrained in our world that our deference alone communicates our awareness and assures our authorities figures of our awareness. In other words, if we’re quiet then our boss knows we know he’s in charge and that’s exactly what he wants. Likewise the individual who constantly speaks or asserts a communication role violates the cognitive frame and brings into question an awareness of who is in charge.

Our cognitive frames not only provide us with the standards of behavior but also the awareness that a violation of the frame is a bad thing. When one knowingly violates the cognitive frame there is a reaction of embarrassment and anxiety. When an audience member’s cell phone rings in the middle of the speech one needs only to scan the room for the reddest face to identify whose phone was in fact never put in silent mode. Our shame defies our meager attempt to conceal our violation. Likewise when a speaker calls upon a member of the audience to provide an insight we respond with anxiety. We do not fear speaking; instead it is the violation of the cognitive frame that inspires the reaction.

Our cognitive frames are well-defined and universally utilized and recognized when in play. As an audience member we automatically adopt the cognitive frame and react with anxiety when called upon to violate the frame’s rules of behavior. When a frame is broken our anxiety comes from both a personal awareness of the violation and the knowledge that the rest of the audience knows we have broken the frame. No great crime has been committed but the role of the audience member is to fade into the background and when called upon to speak a transition must occur: now the audience member is a speaker and has alternative rules and responsibilities. When this occurs the entire audience must react in response to the change in frame- after all a violation has occured and additional violations may occur. “Will I have to speak?” we ask ourselves, secretly wondering whether our own cognitive frame will be violated and whether we need to redefine our role and frame to the situation.

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