Framing Through The Established

How to use things people already know to your advantage

What do People Already Know?

Usually, when you’re trying to persuade someone of something, you are not doing so in a vacuum. By the time you come to persuade someone of something they might already have formed an opinion. 

These pre-existing opinions can stem from different sources. Some will be based on logical reasons, some of them will be based on empirical evidence and some of them will be prejudices.

A smart rhetorician will not only create an argument that stands firm in a vacuum but they’ll create one which uses people’s established preconceptions and cognitive biases. 

Aristotle’s Theory and Framing

The theory of framing does not exist in a rhetorical vacuum: it is tied to Aristotle’s 3 elements of rhetoric.

Pathos is an appeal to the emotions of an audience using preconceptions. For example, if you were speaking to pilots laid off during the Covid-19 pandemic about climate change, comparing polluters to the ‘evil airline industry’ could help get the pilots onside.

Ethos is appealing to the credibility of a speaker and is often built through referencing your own past. For example, in General Douglas MacArthur’s speech to Congress in 1951 in defense of the military, he mentioned his service record, saying that joining the army was “the fulfillment of all my boyish hopes and dreams.”

Finally, Logos is appealing to the logical side of people, typically through building off what people already think are good ideas. President Jimmy Carter mentioned the well-known economic miracle of World War II when calling for an energy revolution, saying “a similar synthetic rubber corporation helped us win World War II, so will we mobilize American determination … to win the energy war.” 

Corrupting Idiomatic Phrases

One of the common ways of using preconceptions is by corrupting common phrases to take advantage of what people already associate with those phrases. 

For example, in AMC’s dramatic series about Madison Avenue advertising firms entitled Mad Men, the lead character, Donald Draper, is trying to come up with a tagline to sell cereal. He is looking for something that will both intrigue consumers and associate with health. In the end, he stumbles on ‘the cure for the common breakfast,’ a parody of the well-known phrase ‘the cure for the common cold.’ People will then associate normal breakfasts with illness, making Draper’s cereal even more attractive.

Think of common phrases that we use that have their own associations. We use idiomatic expressions all the time, whether talking about it ‘raining cats and dogs’ or someone ‘kicking the bucket.’ By altering them slightly, you can memorably use emotional responses people already have.

What are Burdens?

Imagine that you are trying to sell someone a new jacket. Your argument is that they should buy it because you only need 1 jacket for multiple purposes: it’s good both for playing soccer and for sitting on the beach. In your sales pitch, there are 2 different things you have to prove. Firstly, you have to prove that the jacket is good for playing soccer. Secondly, you need to prove that it’s good for sitting on the beach. Only if you prove both of these things will your customer be persuaded that it’s a good multipurpose jacket. 

These things, which you need to prove, are called your burdens. It is important to understand what your burdens are so you don’t forget to prove them and so you can use the time you have to persuade someone as efficiently as possible.

Substituent Burdens

There is also the concept of the ‘substituent burden.’ These are things that you need to prove for the rest of your argument to be relevant.

Imagine instead that you are selling the jacket to someone going on vacation to Utah, and your argument is that it will protect them from the rain. Obviously, you’re going to have to persuade them that the jacket will indeed protect them from the rain. However, that still won’t persuade them to buy the jacket unless you can also convince them that it will rain in Utah. In fact, simply proving to them that the racket is waterproof won’t help you at all at selling it to them. Your primary burden is to prove that the jacket will protect them from rain. However, your substituent burden is to prove that it will rain in Utah.

Picking Your Burdens

When evaluating which argument to make, 1 of the key things you have to consider is how many burdens, and what difficulty of burden, you want to take on. 

You always want to pick accessible burdens.

That all sounds good in the abstract, but what does it look like in a real world argument? 

Well, imagine that you want to order pizza for dinner but your friend wants tacos. Your real reason for wanting that might be because you always grew up having pizza on Thursdays. However, it might be hard to persuade your friend that your traditions are enough of a reason to go for pizza instead of tacos. But, as luck would have it, the pizza place is also running a 2-for-1 deal that night. Even if you don’t care about the cost of the meal, it might be easier to convince your friend to go because of the deal than for your own real reason. Convincing them that price is important might be an easier burden than convincing them that sentiment is important.



Arguing from Consensus

In society, there are ideas that are almost universally accepted: we call these consensuses. For example, almost everyone believes that the sun will rise in the morning or that murder is bad. As a result, you can save yourself from proving certain burdens using established ideas.

One key consensus is that almost everyone believes that people should be rewarded for exceptional work. Imagine that you’re trying to convince the finance director at your company that Martin, who works for you, is worthy of a reward. The two burdens are that ‘Mark’s work is exceptional’ and ‘exceptional work should lead to a reward.’ However, since most people already accept the second burden to be true, you don’t need to prove it. This allows you to concentrate all your time and energy into proving the first burden.

The Problem with Consensus

A big problem with consensus arguments is that they only work when a concept or ethical ideal has near universal support. 

Take, for instance, the argument that people should be allowed to bear arms because the constitution says so. If you’re arguing with someone who believes that the constitution should be revoked, there is no point in trying to convince them that gun rights are constitutionally guaranteed. 

As a result, it is important to be careful when you frame your argument to understand the consensus viewpoints of the people you are trying to convince. A consensus basis shouldn’t just be something you should be fairly sure about – you’ve got to be confident your opponent will accept it.

In cases where no identifiable consensus can be identified, often people will attempt to prove all burdens, even the most obvious ones. These are called ‘first principles arguments’ because they dial back to the first principles that define their burdens.

What is Precedence?

In legal cases, we often hear about someone bringing up a precedent. This is bringing up a past example of something being done, or something similar being done. For example, the US Supreme Court heard the case of ‘Brown vs The Board of Education’ in 1954, which led to the outlawing of segregation. Subsequent cases about race relations cite the case to show what preceded their idea.

The importance of precedence is twofold. Many people fear new ideas that might challenge a functional established world order. They believe that ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ By citing a precedent, you can explain to them that your idea isn’t that new or outlandish. For example, a child who wants candy might be told by his mother that it will ‘make your teeth fall out.’ However, the child could reply ‘but my grandma told me she ate candy all the time when she was my age and her teeth didn’t fall out. Precedence shows that an idea is neither radical nor wildly dangerous.

Precedence and Feasibility

Precedence can show that an idea is possible. For example, imagine an editor is arguing with his writer about a work deadline. The writer says it’s impossible to write the article in 2 days. Well, if the editor then says “your colleague did it in 1”, it can prove it’s possible.

One thing that’s incredibly important to understand is that precedence is not the same thing as consensus. While precedence is simply existing case studies of what has happened before, a consensus must be something that everyone thinks is good. As a result, although we can use consensus to bypass proving burdens, precedent should only be used in an evidential way.

Precedence and the Sunk Cost Fallacy

One of the cognitive biases that precedence can take advantage of is called the ‘sunk cost fallacy.’ This is the notion that you should carry on doing something because you’ve already invested so much into it, even if it’s obvious that it’s doomed.

For example, imagine that the nearest ice cream shop is 3 miles from your house. You set out to walk the distance and walk 2 of the miles. However, your friend then texts you to say they don’t have the flavor you want. Here, you have a choice. Either you could turn back, walk 2 miles and cut your losses or you could walk 4 more miles, including the walk home, for your ice cream. Surprisingly, most people would double down on their initial choice and go get the ice cream, even if they no longer want it.

Sunk Costs In Action

You can also use the sunk cost fallacy when looking at framing through what has already been established. For example, one of the arguments for a continued American intervention in Vietnam was the amount of money and lives that had already been spent on it. If we spent $500 million on it last year, what’s another $100 million? In fact, even people who ordinarily would disagree with $100 million of military spending are often more receptive to it if other money has already been spent. As a result, even if your case looks doomed, you still might be able to convince someone to give you more money, simply by highlighting how much has already been spent.

By citing past costs, whether material or time-based, you can often persuade someone to stick with something that’s already started, even if they think it’s a bad idea.

Stretching the Consensus

Consensus is a convenient shortcut for making arguments when it comes to things where there is an already strongly established understanding. However, what happens when there is no established understanding? What happens when we get to new ideas that haven’t been explored before?

Well, a good example of this comes when we look at emerging technologies. An argument that has come up recently is that of net neutrality – basically whether broadband companies should be allowed to restrict what people do on the internet. Although there is no existing framework relating to internet rights, proponents for net neutrality rights have cited existing consensus viewpoints about the importance of free markets and the dangers of political censorship to defend their case. In short, they’ve taken existing consensus, extrapolated it and expanded it to new frames of reference.

So, even when debating entirely new ideas, consensus can be borrowed from other old ideas in order to strengthen your point. 

Channeling Existing Collective Thought

One of the most interesting aspects of political situations is the concept of collective emotion. While we’re all aware of our individual emotions, there is also the concept that people feel things together. For example, in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, most Americans reported a desire for something to be done. President Bush channeled these emotions – which can be thought of as a kind of abstract consensus – to push the war in Iraq. By arguing that America should invade on the premise that ‘we have to do something’, Bush wasn’t arguing using a logical consensus but a thoughts-based one.

By channeling widely held thoughts, you can take a shortcut away from the necessity of heavy logical thinking.

Defending Against Accepted Consensus

Obviously, arguing from consensus can be incredibly strong. So what are the ways to counter it?

Well, the most obvious way of attacking a consensus argument is to attack the link to the consensus. Let’s go back for a minute to the argument that Martin deserves a bonus. It’s not that hard to convince people that exceptional work deserves a reward. However, we can convince people that Martin’s work isn’t exceptional, perhaps by arguing that he turned it in 3 months late. One way of arguing against consensus is to accept the consensus but to attack the link to it.

A more nuanced way of combating consensus is to try to find exceptions to it. With the Martin example, we might look at his colleague, Martha. If Martha does even better work than Martin but you didn’t recommend her for a bonus, then why Martin? Is it possible that you have an unfair preference for Martin? Counter-examples can serve to create a moralistic gray area, which can defend against the consensus.

Rejecting a Consensus

Accepting a consensus and then showing that it doesn’t link is a good way of invalidating the argument. But what if you can’t do that?

Perhaps the boldest way of challenging a consensus is by disproving it. This is often done using Socratic questioning. This technique, developed by the philosopher Socrates, encourages you to ask questions about a consensus, inviting consideration of its ethical or philosophical basis. For example, let’s delve deeper into Martin’s work. What if Martin’s work is more exceptional because the people who work for him are better? What if exceptional work is never down to individual efforts? If that’s the case, then maybe we shouldn’t reward people for exceptional work.

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