I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the interplay between frames, stories and narratives. Three siblings within the broad, far-reaching family of human culture and language, they often work together on a subconscious level to inform our day to day feelings and actions.
Like most siblings, they have moments where they get on splendidly — and at other times, they can instantaneously reinforce negative or unhelpful views that we hold about other people or groups of people.
Frames are the mental structures we form about how we see the world, and are informed by language. They are the cognitive shortcuts we use to provide instant context and information about any given situation.
Stories have a beginning, middle and end, and usually serve to fulfil some predetermined purpose — to inspire, educate, entertain, inform, persuade or manipulate.
Narratives are a system or collection of related stories that are inherently felt or understood to be true by any individual or group. They look to past events, experiences, conversations, stories, and frames to inform the present or the future. For better or worse, they hold a great deal of power over us.
An example, involving seagulls and sparrows
Recently I was sitting outdoors at a local cafe overlooking Lyall Bay in Wellington. It was a rare, warm Wellington midsummer evening, where the heat of the 6pm sun felt like midday, and I was relishing the calm of some alone time.
Basking in the afterglow of a strong coffee and an incredible, yet unmanageably large cream donut, a sparrow landed on the end of my table eyeing up the leftover bits of donut sitting on my plate. Comfortable in knowing that I had had my fill, I pushed the plate away from me to the edge of the table, towards the little bird.
The two of us shared a brief moment of eye contact as the sparrow curiously hopped closer to the prize, emboldened against the danger of a large mammal in close proximity, by the familiarity of its surroundings. When a large seagull swept down towards the plate, I instinctively waved my hand over the plate to shoo it away.
Moments later a blackbird came by and in a split decision, I allowed it to take one of the two chunks of donut. The sparrow returned, and took a daring leap towards the donut. She grabbed the whole chunk, which probably matched her own bodyweight, and flew away before promptly dropping it to the ground.
Another sparrow flew in and the two tousled in the gutter for a moment or two, before one dropped the chunk once more onto the nearby road, whereby a seagull promptly swooped down to carry it away.
I instantly felt sad for the sparrows, and annoyed at the seagull.
And as I sat there, I started to wonder where these emotions were coming from. What were the underlying narratives informing these feelings? Why was I seemingly happy for a sparrow or a blackbird to share my evening treat, but not a seagull?
Was it an implicit frame I held about the predatory “greed” of gulls? Was it my affinity for the underdog? Was it the sparrow’s miniature features, aesthetically pleasing to my eyes, in contrast to the loud squawking and overbearing body of the gull that had me batting for Team Sparrow? And if so, does physical appearance and the cadence of a creature’s voice make them more or less deserving of a basic necessity like food?
Like any living being, gulls are biologically wired to maximise chances of self-preservation, and judging purely by body mass they surely need much more food than sparrows to survive, so why was I upset that the sparrow had got a few crumbs while the larger bird got the full chunk?
It got me wondering what frames and narratives were coming into play here on this suddenly very philosophical evening in the sun? And how do those underlying biases play out in how we think about other people?
In this story, the frames informing my feelings included that of the “greedy seagull”. If I told you it was a “hungry seagull”, that would have very different connotations — it’s a different frame. I might also have been drawing on a frame in which the seagull “stole” the piece of donut from the sparrow. A different frame could be that the gull was out gathering food for its evening meal.
The story in this case is exactly what I have laid out in the above paragraphs. It’s the way I framed the evening and the pieces of information I chose to share that I thought were most relevant. It’s the distinct and defined moments in time that I decided should constitute the beginning, middle and end that bookended this particular set of experiences.
And what were the narratives informing my feelings? Perhaps the one that that says much about the world is unequal and unfair, and that I see myself as a person who is dedicated to tipping the scale towards a more balanced scenario. We might call that the narrative of cheering for the underdog.
I may have also been operating from the narratives that I hold about seagulls from past experience. I’ve seen many seagulls taking food from humans, and loudly squabbling over tasty morsels. One of my earliest memories regarding seagulls is of them circling above the local landfill, diving down to feast on the latest contribution served up courtesy of the rubbish truck driving away. Had I had early experiences watching nesting gulls feeding their young, I might hold very different narratives regarding seagulls.
All this happened in a split second. The frames and narratives I held about one particular species of bird instantaneously sent data from some far recesses of my brain to form a story about what had just happened.
If this can happen with birds, it’s safe to assume the same set of subconscious story-building tools comes into play in how we think about people.
I asked myself, do I inherently believe that some people are more deserving of good things than others, regardless of factors beyond their control? I like to think that I don’t hold such views, but cognitive psychology is clear that our beliefs and actions are overwhelmingly driven not by rational thinking, but by emotions, the mental shortcuts we take, and the subconscious narratives we believe to be true.
In this time of increasing polarity between different groups of people, it’s important to identify and question the frames, stories and narratives that we believe and that we perpetuate through our thoughts and actions. By questioning deeply and without judgement, we can begin to build new narratives, that better serve the kind of world we want to live in.