Transcript: Cracking The Code 05: Framing and chunking. 05 Jan 2007

Thom wrote his book "Cracking The Code" on the air: This was the fifth week, covering "framing and chunking".

Cracking The Code 05: Framing and chunking. 05 Jan 2007

Cracking the COde

I'm writing a book right now called "Cracking the Code: the Art and Science of Political Persuasion" and we're doing it week by week here on the radio and this week the topic we're going to talk about is 'framing' and 'chunking'. Most people are familiar with the word framing. They're not all that familiar with the word chunking. And a lot of people don't understand what either means and there's a relationship between the two.

Let me give you an example of framing first of all. the web site; "We watch FOX so you don't have to", you know, these folks who are kind of vigilant about, you know, literally the watch Fox so we don't have to. This is a story reported by Judy, one of their reporters:

"Reacting to the idea of a powerful woman, Fox News Thursday (January 4, 2007) marked the occasion of the swearing in of the first woman as Speaker of the House with coverage that mocked her authority and depicted her policy disagreements with other members of Congress as petty jealousies typical of women.

"Fox and Friends" began its coverage not with a story about the history-making aspects of Nancy Pelosi's swearing in as speaker, but with a story about Rep. Jane Harman, D-California, still being upset after Pelosi failed to reappoint her as chair of the House Intelligence Committee.

"Fox and Friends" co-hosts Steve Doocy, Gretchen Carlson, and Andrew Napolitano blamed Pelosi's dumping of Harman on Harman's willingness to work with Republicans, Foxspeak for failure to challenge Bush administration's intelligence abuses.

As the trio discussed …"

Now here's where we get into the frame, OK. And what Fox is doing is they're establishing a frame for Nancy Pelosi: not as Speaker of the House, not as somebody who is defending America's liberty, not as a great stateswoman, none of those things; but rather as a petty and jealous female.

"As the trio discussed the story, Fox News displayed a banner reading "Congress Catfight." "

This is what the Fox News banner said as they talk about Nancy Pelosi on the day she's being signed in, ah, she's being sworn in.

"The term "catfight" is a belittling term often used to "

I'm reading from Jane's piece [Judy's - ed.] here in

"The term "catfight" is a belittling term often used to ridicule disagreements among women, casting them as fights among animals (especially an animal that is often seen as fickle and hard to understand like a cat). Saying a disagreement among women is a "catfight" is akin to saying that the women are less than human and their disagreement is based on something other than rationality, intellect or principle. Men do battle. Women have catfights. "

This is what Jane is writing [Judy - ed.] over at

"This subtle swipe was not the end of Fox News' efforts to belittle the new speaker.

In a segment on Pelosi's comments that by becoming speaker, she was now the most powerful woman in America, Doocy read her quote about breaking through a "marble ceiling" and then mocked her by saying, "All rise, Nancy Pelosi takes control" as the music of "Pomp and Circumstance" played in the background. When Doocy mentioned her name again later in the program, Fox News played the same music.

At one point, Fox News also displayed a banner beneath video of Pelosi which read, "Stepping Down." And in the second hour of the program, the Fox and Friends trio repeated their discussion of the Harman-Pelosi disagreement, complete with the "Congress Catfight" banner.

Later, going into a break, Napolitano teased, "Is the new Speaker of the House really the most powerful woman in America?" "She says so," answered Doocy, suggesting there was reason to doubt it.

After the break, the co-hosts interviewed Michael Barone of U.S. News and World Reports about Pelosi's power. He confirmed that her political power is considerable: third in line for the presidency behind the president and vice president, with the power to set the agenda in the House. "

And yet, continuously through this two hour show, Fox News kept establishing this frame of Nancy Pelosi as basically being a petty person, largely because she's a woman. Over at they conclude the piece by saying:

"Pelosi does not fit the mold of "fair and balanced" femininity espoused on Fox News: women are either innocent victims, like Natalee Holloway, or they are whores, like the accuser in the Duke lacrosse rape case. "

And this is one of the primary conservative frames, is, you know, the Madonna or whore frame; that women have to fit in one of those two categories, whereas men can be anything, right, which takes us back to that Supreme Court case that I was reading from earlier.

So the whole concept of a frame is that it in a way is at one level an anchor; that is to say, when you when you bring up the frame, it brings up all kinds of stuff associated with it. And at the same, you know, for example, Social Security. Social Security is a program; it's also a frame and it means different things to different people.

Tax relief: this is a classic frame. In order to have relief, you have to have an affliction, right? "I'm going to be relieved of my headache". But I, you know, you don't talk about relief of something positive, generally. You don't say, "You know, I think I'll go to the restaurant and have some hunger relief." I suppose you could, but, you know, typically instead you say, "I'm going to go eat; I'm going to enjoy the meal, it's going to be good."

So the frame defines the issue and what's really important is to out-frame the framers, you know. For example, right wingers say, "Social Security, it's broke!" Well, that's one frame; the Social Security program is running out of money. It's partially accurate. But another frame that would be much more powerful, but which the news media has been unwilling to engage in, would be, 'Social Security is having problems because Ronald Reagan started spending the Social Security Trust Fund money, and every president since him has continued to spend the Social Security Trust Fund money on tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires. Your Social Security money went to tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires'. That would be, you know, another way of framing it.

So, one of the most important things about frames is knowing that 90% of the battle in politics is defining and maintaining the frame. And the minute you step into your opponent's frame; the moment that you start arguing about, "Well, our tax relief is better than your tax relief", as opposed to, "Hey, taxes are the price of admission to civil society - you don't want to pay taxes - what, are you a freeloader?" We just reframed it, right. I mean, I'm pleased to have streets that don't have potholes. I'm pleased to have police departments that protect, you know, ideally that protect me as a citizen. I'm pleased to have a fire department that's going to make sure that my house doesn't burn down. And I'm pleased to pay the taxes to do that.

Now, obviously there are some things I'd rather not be paying taxes for; there's policies that I don't like, but, you know, for example, the war in Iraq. But the reality is that as a citizen of this country it's not a, you know, "Well, I think I'll take this and I won't take that" kind of thing. We're all in this together, I mean, that's, here's the frame of democracy now.

Now, in the context of frames, the most powerful frames are frames that involve values, and this is where chunking up and chunking down comes along. Chunking up is where you take something to the bigger picture. Chunking down is where you start going down into the minutia. And those of you who are long time listeners to the program know - perhaps you didn't know it at the level of, you know, the conscious level, but you will now and you'll notice it in the future - that one of the primary strategies that I use when I'm debating conservatives is to try to chunk up; in other words, get somebody on the program and they'll start out talking about, "Well, you know, we really shouldn't have…"

Well, for example, yesterday, our debate with Yaron Brook. "We shouldn't have the government involving itself in whether or not fast food restaurants are in children's hospitals". Now, we could have limited the argument to that. I could have simply debated that - that's a small chunk, and it's a relatively small frame. And the frame that Yaron was using for it was 'government should not involve itself in private activity'; hospitals are private institutions, people are private people, government shouldn't involve itself. That's actually a very large and very powerful frame.

So I, and so what he was doing was making an argument at a micro level, a small level, to invoke a macro frame, a frame at a very large level. So I then took it to a frame at a very large level, which is 'don't we as a society have an obligation to protect our vulnerable kids who see a McDonald's in a hospital and it causes them to think that healing and McDonald's are somehow synonymous'. You get it? This is chunking up.


If you have questions about this whole issue that we've been talking about now for about a month, I think, three, four weeks, maybe five weeks, we've been doing this. The "Cracking the Code: the Art and Science of Political Persuasion". If you have examples you'd like to share with us or questions about how it works, or any of the conversations we've had in previous weeks. What I've been doing up to this point is basically taking an hour and doing a monologue. And today what I'd like to do is open up the second half hour, you know, right after the next break to your calls and let's get a dialogue going about this. Our number: 1- (866) 440-8466. Your thoughts on that.

One of the keys to how framing works, there's two concepts here that we're talking about: framing and chunking up and chunking down. One of the keys to how framing works has to do with the selectivity of attention. There's a basic premise that's used in both marketing, politics and hypnosis - and we'll talk about this in one of our future chapters when we talk about hypnotic language and the use of hypnosis - is that people can only attend to seven things at the same time plus or minus two. The human variation is the plus or minus two. Some people can only attend to five things. Some people can attend to nine things. But nobody, for all practical purposes, can attend to fewer, is incapable of attending to fewer than five or capable of attending to more than nine.

And so we because we can all pay attention to seven plus or minus two things, for example right now, I'm attending to, you know, thinking about what I'm talking about and what I'm going to say next, I'm attending to the microphone in front of me and noticing that, and the sounds in the headphones coming back at me, to Gary? Greg, and Mary in the next room on the side of the, you know, I'm attending to my environment. I'm attending to sitting up straight, not falling over. I mean, there's a certain point at which, and all of you are as well, each of us is attending to the various things, that you know, have to do with homeostasis; you know, our body temperature. If you're driving, you're attending to the driving.

So at a certain point we reach a point where OK, that's it, we can't attend to any more than that. I can't read the email that's in front of me at the same time that I can read the chat room at the same time that I can think about what I'm going to talk about at the same time I can notice Gary and Mary and at the same time I can see the TV screen going. You know, there's a certain overload point.

And because of that what we do is we create a selective form of, amnesia's the wrong word, of, we have selective focus, selective attention. It's part survival strategy and it's part efficiency strategy. It makes us more efficient at attending to things if we can focus on just a few things at one time. And so the key to framing is to pick out a few of those seven plus or minus two things. See, an effective frame can't have more than a couple of components to it. It has to be real simple when, in fact this is one of the problems that progressives and liberals very often have in articulating their world view because their worldview is relatively complex. It's one of the appeals of a conservative world view which is highly simple: 'this is the role of men; this is the role of women' they would say, for example.

"Oh, Nancy Pelosi, if she has power, she must be getting into a catfight", because they have that very simplistic world view; not a lot of pieces to it. Their big chunk, as they chunk up, their large view of who people are in the world, is really a very, very small and simple one, right.

So, one of the keys to effective framing, to competent framing, is to have that frame be very simple and to really powerful framing can be to just turn things on their side.

For example, I just got an email from Random House, my publisher; the publisher of two of my books, three of my books and it's from their PR department about their new titles, and you know, just send it out to talk show hosts:

" Dinesh D'Souza takes on the most talked about, dissected topic of our day and gives us a startling, controversial reading on the causes and possible cures for the war on terror."

Now, the frame that this book is putting forward is that liberals are responsible for 9/11. That's the frame. The title is, "THE ENEMY AT HOME: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11". You say, "What? That's crazy". But notice how quickly they lay this out. "D'Souza reveals that the war on terror is not, as many have claimed, being waged by Christian conservatives. He asserts that the war truly is a war against Islam, and the leaders of America's cultural left are leading the charge. People like Hillary Clinton, Ted Kennedy, Barney Frank, Billy Moyers, and Michael Moore are responsible for 9/11 in two ways: by fostering a decadent and depraved American culture that angers and repulses other societies-especially traditional and religious ones-"

OK, so the first part, the first big chunk of this frame is that we had it coming, as Pat Robertson said. And second: "-and by promoting, at home and abroad, an anti-American attitude that blames America for all the problems of the world." In other words, any time we engage in self examination, anytime we criticize our leaders or our government, we are causing the rest the world to think poorly of us and hate us, and so anybody who does either these two things is responsible for 9/11. It's nuts, but that's their frame.


You better listen my brother
'Cause if you do you can hear
There are voices still callin' from across the years
And they're cryin' across the ocean
And they're cryin' across the land
And they will until we all come to understand

That none of us are free
None of us are free
None of us are free if one of us is chained
None of us are free

None Of Us Are Free, Lynyrd Skynyrd.

See, there's a chunk for you. That's a real substantial frame; none of us are free if one of us is in chains. That was the argument that was made by the abolitionists back in the early days, I mean.

So, anyhow, this is the concept of a frame includes, or induces actually, a good frame actually induces selective attention. In other words, it causes people to attend to some things and not attend to others. The frame of death tax, for example, causes people to forget about the fact that what we're talking about is taxing a transaction, a passage of cash between two individuals, one of whom has died. But none the less, it's a transfer of wealth; it's a transfer of cash. And in our society we have a consensus that if we transfer wealth to anybody that's over, within families if it's over $10,000, that's called a taxable event, and when the money comes to a person it's called income. But by calling it a death tax, then we say, "Oh, gee", you know, it creates a kind of amnesia around all of those issues.

Our number: 1- (866) 440-8466, our telephone number and Rama, in Williamstown Vermont.

[Rama] Hey, Thom.

[Thom] The guy who helped us start this program and our very first producer.

[Rama] Yeah, yeah, I absolutely am. And as always, it was a pleasure to be there to help things get started, you know.

[Thom] Well, thank you.

[Rama] I want to say first off, this part of, this show segment has really become like a thing I love listening to. I find the subject totally fascinating. But I've taken up doing a little bit of substitute teaching and while I'm up there I have some free time and in my pursuit of trying to at least do the job a little bit better, as I read pretty much whatever sits there on the desks, and a book I came across on one of the desks was "Literacy with an attitude ", if I remember the title correctly. And this is the question I want to ask, and then I'll explain why, because it comes from this book.

Is there a difference, in all of this framing and discussion, is there a difference in how you talk about issues according to the economic class of the person you're talking to?

[Thom] Absolutely.

[Rama] OK.

[Thom] Not just the economic class. I mean, the reality is that we are a multicultural society and there are, not only are there larger subcultures, you know, that have to do with wealth or have to do with race or have to do with regionality, but there are also micro subcultures. I mean, there are, you can define subcultures at the level of family, at the level of the workplace. There's, you know, culture, there's no homogenous thing that is culture, or even that is American culture.

[Rama] OK, and I guess to cut it short, then, that's essentially what the author there says, is, you know, people from lower classes tend not to move around and thus tend to be more suggestive with their discussion. Richer classes that tend to get out and deal with people outside their community tend to talk a lot more specifically because they need to get understood by people that don't have a shared experience with them.

[Thom] Well, that's, you know, one of the predicates of most language, is a whole bunch of assumptions. I mean, you say anything and there's a, you know, this is why we have pronouns. You say, you know, "He went to the bank", you know, well, who's the 'he'? Or for that matter, where's the bank? We're not, typically, in any given sentence, there's all kinds of assumptions built into the sentence that have to do with what preceded it, what followed it and the social context or the discussion or situational context of it. But yeah, I would suggest to you that if you're establishing frames or if you're chunking up or down for the purpose of political persuasion, you absolutely want to take into consideration who is your target audience, who is it that you want to attach to this frame?

I mean, for example, the death tax; that whole death tax thing. They were not trying to use that frame to influence the people who were going to pay an inheritance tax; that's like 1/10 of 1% of the American population.

[Rama] Sure.

[Thom] They wanted to use that frame to influence people who will never have to pay a so-called death tax. They wanted to get them in on it and have them identify with it. Rama, got to move along. Thanks a lot for the call. Good point. Nicole in San Francisco, listening on the Quake. Hey, Nicole.

[Nicole] Hi. Listen, I just want to thank you because I have never had the ability, and I have always admired your ability to talk to conservatives and keep giving logical arguments. I cannot help it. In the past I have constantly let my emotions because I got to the point of total befuddlement with them. I simply sit there and scratch my head and have nothing more to say.

[Thom] Yeah. Well this is where the strategy that I'm talking about today is so useful, because I'm always asking myself 'what's the bigger picture here?' In other words, what's the bigger chunk? What's the large frame that we're really discussing and once I can understand the frame that they're operating out of, I can understand or I can create the counter-frame and come back to it.

[Nicole] Are they consciously framing when they speak or is it subconscious?

[Thom] A few of them are consciously framing. Most conservatives and liberals, for that matter most people I'd say, particularly in political debate, are really just doing sports, what I call all sports; the my team versus your team sort of thing. This is, they're working off their talking points; they're working off a frame that was, you know, either very carefully or very evolutionarily created for them by somebody else. There are some very conscious framers out there, though, you know: Frank Luntz, Newt Gingrich, these guys.

[Nicole] Karl Rove?

[Thom] Karl Rove absolutely; very, very conscious of language and of frames and, you know, at what level of the chunks are they going to extract data to create the frames. And that's why, in debating conservatives, I always try to, not always, but I generally try to step back one giant step from what the actual subject of the debate is to what is the larger chunk, what is the big frame that we are debating here. And then sometimes if you push that in various directions you get to the obvious absurdities of it.

[Nicole] Right.

[Thom] But that's my strategy is to, cause I used to get emotional about this stuff. I mean, my beginning with political debate was when I was 15, 16 years old and I started, my dad was a Republican, you know, I've told this story before. When I was 13 in 1964, he was the county chairman for the Republican Party and I went door to door for Barry Goldwater. I mean, I had read John Stormer's " None Dare Call it Treason". I knew the communists had taken over the State Department and they were coming to get me. You know, a friend of my Dad's took me to a John Birch Society meeting. My dad was never into that but, you know.

[Nicole] Wow!

[Thom] I was like, you know, the Republicans had me. And within two years, I'd say probably in part because of the Vietnam war and part because I went off to college, I'd I figured out that that I didn't share that world view. And I remember, you know, I used to have these knock down drag out arguments with my dad. On one occasion he got so angry that his response was "Leave the house!" He threw me out of the house one night! God bless him, you know, he immediately retracted it. And both of us would just get so like cranked up and over the years, my dad died last summer, you know, just a few months ago, and he still, I mean, the day he died he was a Republican. But over the years, what we did was we figured out how to have these debates at the level of intellect not the level of "I'm going to beat you up".

[Nicole] Well, my grandmother was actually one of those Republicans and I was closer to my grandmother than I was to my own parents. She was one of those Republicans, she said, until the day she died. She would go and vote the straight Republican slate, just straight, without knowledge of issues, without knowledge of the candidate, without any knowledge at all. She was one of those dyed in the wool Republicans. I loved her still but what are you going to do?

[Thom] Yeah, but then, and then, I think it was a really good lesson for me. I learned that it is possible to have a political debate and not have blood on the floor afterwards, 'cause we all have people like my dad in our lives and we all have people who don't share our political perspective and we have to figure out a way to have conversations with them.

[Nicole] But Thom, I love this segment, don't ever quit it, it educates me, it helps me, I appreciate it.

[Thom] Great. Thank you Nicole and thanks for the call, I appreciate it. Philip in Tacoma, Washington. Hey, Philip.

[Philip] Thanks for taking my call, Thom.

[Thom] Sure.

[Philip] I'm a little confused, though, on the wording 'big chunks'. I know [inaudible] like 'the whole picture' or 'the big picture'. In other words, like little chunks are like missions. You always establish missions to meet the objective or goal, and case in point, like our goal is to make aware of a living wage for everybody. That's out goal, and by establishing little chunks or little missions, I think, the economy is here to serve the people, and not the people to serve the economy. You know, so I'm thinking if you use the word, "the big picture".

[Thom] Right, that's the ultimate big chunk or a big picture. Yeah, it's a good point. And for visual people, you know, big picture is certainly a good phrase. But yeah, the whole discussion of living wage, and Philip, I'm sorry, your cell phone is like really creaky there so I'm going to have to drop you. But you made your point; you made it well. The living wage, the whole concept of a living wage that, you know, that could be a large chunk and it certainly can be a frame but there's also a larger chunk or a bigger picture than that, and a bigger frame than that, which is, 'do we have an economy to serve society?

That is to say, do we want to have an economic system, in this case regulated capitalism, in the United States? Do we want to have an economic system for the purpose of advancing the goals of society or do we have a society - do we breed people - in order to be resources for those who control the economic system? And that's really, increasingly, one of the fundamental divides between conservatives and liberals. Conservatives view humans as resources and feel that they should get those resources as cheaply as possible just like any other resource, and liberals view humans as humans and say "No, wait a minute, the purpose of the economy, the purpose of our economic and economic institutions should ultimately be to serve all of us.


[Thom] Charles in San Francisco, California, listening on the Quake. Hey, Charles.

[Charles] Hi, thanks very much. I've just recently begun enjoying your show.

[Thom] Thank you.

[Charles] I want to talk about the framing issue and I'd like to suggest that, as much as I like the argument that you are making, for example, about freeloaders versus tax relief as two different frames, I think you and a lot of us are still falling into the trap of an even bigger Republican frame on taxes. And that is, that you used the phrase at one point saying, "You know, I like roads and I like having good roads, I like police and I don't mind paying my taxes to have that stuff. And I think that's part of the trap because I'm a progressive but I hate paying taxes and I think most people, I think most progressives, most people could be persuaded that actually taxes are a necessary evil that we endure in order to have some of these other things that we like.

[Thom] You know, I don't disagree with you, Charles. Let me blow that frame apart, though. Let's chunk this one up even bigger. Just, without telling me what your income is, let's just make up a magic income. Let's say that you make 50,000 bucks a year, OK? For example, OK? And if you made $50,000 a year, what would your take home pay be after taxes? Maybe 35, 40, right?

[Charles] Maybe. Yeah.

[Thom] OK, so let's say it's $40,000. Now, if we were to, if I was able to magically wave a wand and say, "OK, no more taxes; there's no more taxes, period". We're going to figure out some other way to fund the government. We're going to do it with tariffs, for example. And so Charles no longer has to pay a tax. Your employer, who's been paying you $50,000 a year so that you can take home $40,000 a year, do you think that employer's going to continue paying you that $50,000 a year?

[Charles] I think, see Thom, the thing is, I don't think the answer to that matters, because what you're doing is, you're getting into subtleties of arguments about microeconomics and about cash flows and so on which fall back into the liberal trap as you said, you know…

[Thom].. Of being too complex; too many chunks.

[Charles] Yeah, that's right. You're following complex and subtle arguments and not, what I'm saying is that, at a very visceral level, as long as you include phrases like, "I don't mind paying my taxes," a lot of people are just going to viscerally say, "Well, he's nuts".

[Thom] OK, All right, point made.

[Charles] I'm thinking of a talk I attended by Bill Clinton in which he said, you know, the difference between conservatives and progressives is that progressives appreciate that there is a role for government and I thought to myself, "You know, Bill, as brilliant as you are, you are falling into a Republican trap". Again, because I think that the vast majority of Americans, culturally, prefer the idea of smaller government and…

[Thom] No, I disagree with that, Charles. I think the vast majority of Americans have bought into that rhetoric as the result of 30 years of it being constantly, the drumbeat if it, but the fact of the matter is that Americans want their streets not to have potholes, they want their Social Security check to show up.

[Charles] But you see, you're drawing a false dichotomy here. I'm not saying that I don't want good streets. I'm saying that I want the benefits of well run government and I will support institutions which bring those benefits, but government for its own sake is something which most Americans have a visceral negative reaction to. And that's the trap that the Republicans have us in. We need to focus on the benefits that it brings and not, and avoid defending government per se or defending taxes per se, because those are losing frames.

[Thom] Good point, Charles, thank you very much. Jane, in Pittsburg Pennsylvania, listening on WPTT Hey, Jane.

[Jane] Yes, hello. You said a moment ago, I just wanted to add to the notion that you said that Republicans, or maybe it was capitalists, see humans principally as resources and I would just add to that perhaps a little qualifier is that not all humans. You know, their own group, whatever group that is; family or class, or level of management.

[Thom] Sure.

[Jane] Whatever it is. They don't see them as being capable of being exploited and I think the fundamental flaw in their thinking which we're all prone to, but they in particular are unabashed about the fact that they are by definition not egalitarian. They don't see humans as deserving what they have.

[Thom] And the CEOs who are making hundreds of millions of dollars are looking at other CEOs making hundreds of millions of dollars and not thinking, "Oh gee, there's a resource". They're thinking, "That's a member of my tribe".

[Jane] Yeah. Yeah. That's their flaw. You know, it's not that they see everyone as exploitable, but only certain people. And I think that's even a dire and more immoral stance.

[Thom] Yeah. I don't disagree with you at all, Jane. Well said. Thank you very much for the call and thanks for listening.

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