Tabooing “Frame Control”

“Frame Control” is a colloquial term people have used to describe “Someone is doing something rhetorically fishy that somehow relates to frames.” I think it’s a fairly loaded phrase, and hasn’t really been used consistently. I’m not sure we should actually use the phrase – it seems easy to weaponize in unhelpful ways. But it does seem like it’s getting at something important that I want to understand and talk about.

Aella’s post on the topic focused on particularly abusive dynamics. I think abusive frame control is an important central example. But I think there are many times when “something rhetorically fishy is going on with frames”, and it isn’t particularly abusive but still is worth talking about.

In this post I want to try* and taboo frame control, as well as draw more of a distinction between “the cluster of patterns that is ‘frame control’”, and “the cluster of patterns that is ‘abuse’ and ‘manipulate’.”

*in practice, I still needed to refer to “the gestalt cluster of things that feel centrally ‘frame control-y’” and I didn’t have a better word for that than “frame control” although I tried to mostly put it in quotes.

First, a quick recap on frames.

A frame is a colloquial term for “what someone sees as important, what sort of questions they ask or what they’re trying to get out of a conversation.” I think it’s often used in a fuzzy metaphorical way, and there are slightly different metaphors people were unconsciously using, including picture frames, window frames and frameworks.

Artist’s rendition of people in communicating in different frames.
Alice is trying to have a mechanistic problem solving discussion.
Bob is trying to resolve feelings and vibe.

John Wentworth explores a more technical approach to frames in his post Shared Frames Are Capital Investments in Coordination. There, he defines a frame as way of conceptualizing a problem or solution space. A frame suggests which types of questions to ask, and which type of answers to look for.

Previously, I’ve discussed how sometimes people have different assumptions about what frame they’re in. The result can be annoying, confused conversations that take years to resolve. Noticing those different frames is an important communication skill.

Okay. So what’s “Frame Control?”

People use “Frame control” differently. I assume they all roughly means, well, “someone is trying to control your frame”. Possibly unconsciously, possibly deliberately, their actions are shaping what sort of questions you’re able to ask and think about, and what you think is important.

But, just as people had originally used the word “frame” in an ambiguous way that led to some confusion, I think people have used the phrase “frame control” inconsistently. I’m about to share my own ontology of “what concepts ‘frame control’ breaks down into.” If you’ve experienced something-you-call-frame-control, you may want to take a moment to think through your own conceptions of it.[1]


(here is you having some space to think through your own experiences and ontology. Feel free to leave your own takes in the comments)



When I reflect on the times something “frame-control-ish” has happened to me, four distinctions that strike me are:

  1. Holding a frame, at all. i.e. having a sense of how you’re trying to think or communicate, and what sort of questions or goals you’re trying to address.
    This is super normal and reasonable.

  2. Presenting a strongly held/​presented frame, such as by speaking confidently/​authoritatively (which many people who don’t hold their own frames very strongly sometimes find disorienting)

  3. Persistently insisting on a frame. such that when someone tries to say/​imply ‘hey, my frame is X’ you’re like ‘no, the frame is Y’. And if they’re like ‘no, it’s X’ you just keep talking in frame Y and make it socially awkward to communicate in frame X.

  4. Frame manipulation, where you change someone else’s frame in a subtle way without them noticing, i.e. presenting a set of assumptions in a way that aren’t natural to question, or equivocating on definitions of words in ways that change what sort of questions to think about without people noticing you’ve done so. The literal framing effect literature is relevant here.

  5. Frame coercion/​threat, where you imply (maybe through body language) that if someone doesn’t accept your frame, you will do something bad. Maybe you’ll make them look dumb in front of their friends, maybe you’ll ostracize them from the group. The line between this and merely having a strong friend can be blurry.

#2, #3 and #4, and #5 can be mixed and matched.

The places where people tend to use the word ‘frame control’ seem to most often refer to #3 and #4, frame-insistence and frame-manipulation.

I’m a bit confused about how to think about ‘strong frames’ – I think there’s nothing inherently wrong with them, but if Alicia is ‘weaker willed’ than Brandon, she may end up adopting his frame in ways that subtly hurt her. This isn’t that different from, like, some people being physically bigger and more likely to accidentally hurt a smaller person. I wouldn’t want society to punish people for happening-to-be-big, but it feels useful to at least notice ‘bigness privilege’ sometimes.

That said, strongly held frames that are also manipulative or insistent can be pretty hard for many people to be resilient against, and I think it’s worth noticing that.

Frame Control vs Manipulativeness vs Abuse

Aella wrote a post on frame control that was focused on a particular abusive version of it, where someone is systematically manipulating what you can think about on the order of days/​months/​years, in a way that has really harmful longterm effects. That’s a very bad thing that can happen. But I think many aspects of frame control are subtler and basically fine in small doses. For comparison: lightly tapping someone on the shoulder is fine, and for many people some rough-and-tumble backslaps or roughhousing can be healthy and good, but violently assaulting someone is generally quite bad. Analogously, mild versions of frame control can be part of a mundane interaction, but more extreme versions can be harmful.

Meanwhile there are tons of ways you can be manipulative or abusive without being frame controlling. If someone lies to you, or threatens you, or convinces you to become financially dependent on them, that can fuck with you in a way that isn’t (necessarily) “frame-control-y”.

But, I think the reason that “frame control” comes up as a concept is that it can be pretty mindfucky. In a technical, information-flow sense, frame control can distort your ability to process information. But in a phenomenological and psychological sense, frame control can feel disorienting, or nauseating, or leave you feeling trapped/​confused.

Examples to explore

“Ray, this all super abstract. WTF do any of these words actually look like in the real world?”

Yeah, fair. Let’s dig into some examples. All of these deal with some manner of “something a bit iffy relating to frames is going on”. Some might feel more “frame control-y” than others. Some might feel coercive or abusive and some might not.

Note: in these examples I refer to “you”. “You” is a character that changes from example to example. I use it to convey what an experience feels like from the inside and encourage empathy, but I expect you won’t necessarily resonate with all the examples.

i. Your really opinionated colleague

He always talks loudly and confidently about libertarianism and cryptocurrency, and he’ll often respond to conversations with a lens of: “Of course the problem here is [coordination failure] [lack of autonomy] [ authority figures throwing their weight around ].”

Not that the thing that makes this about frame is not the topic of libertarianism or bitcoin, but the underlying generator for why he thinks libertarianism and bitcoin are important (i.e. tending to see problems as coordination failures which should be solved with technology).

He’ll drop the subject if you ask, and is capable of listening to you when you prompt him to, but he keeps gravitating towards his frame in a confident tone of voice that makes it feel awkward to disagree with.

This person has a strong frame, and is somewhat insistent about it, but is not manipulative.

ii. Your annoying stereotypical mother-in-law

She’s fairly soft-spoken, but always talks through the same set of assumptions and keeps returning the conversation to the same topics. She asks “Why haven’t you had kids yet?”, and notes “You should buy a house in this neighborhood!”, when you’ve made it clear you and your partner prioritize your careers over kids and don’t care about the things that make that neighborhood good. She’ll do this even when literally two sentences ago you spelled it out for her.

This person doesn’t present her frame very strongly. And she’s kind of socially clumsy so she’s not very manipulative (although maybe she’s trying to be?). But she sure is insistent, and if you’re not paying attention you might drift into thinking the way she’s pushing towards.

iii. Your well-meaning friend who always jumps in with her frame before you have time to think

She doesn’t have any particular frame she insists on, and she’s not manipulative about it. But she has a lot of individual frames that seem important/​clear to her, and she’s quick to decide on new frames when she encounters a situation. Her conversational style moves very quickly, and she’s not very good at listening.

She might have good advice, but depending on your psychology she might be disorienting to talk to, and might cause you to unconsciously adopt her frames without noticing.

iv. The manipulative guru

Previous examples were fairly mild. Let’s look at a more central example of “frame control.”

The guru has the answer to everything. They have a worldview that seems at least somewhat compelling to you, which seems helpful for making sense of things. They point out lots of things wrong with your other relationships and employment situation and the world at large.

Whenever you notice something off about the guru’s arguments, they immediately have an answer. The answer doesn’t always quite feel right to you, but they speak confidently and reassuringly. At first maybe you try to argue with them about it. But over time, a) you find yourself not bothering to argue with them, b) even when you do argue with them, they’re the ones choosing the terms of the argument. If they think X is important, you find yourself focused on argue whether-or-not X is true, and ignoring all the different Ys and Zs that maybe you should have been thinking about.

Over time, some things start to give you a bad feeling. It feels like the guru is making a mistake somewhere, but it’s hard for you to pin down.

Years later looking back, you might notice that they always changed the topic, or used various logical fallacies/​equivocations, or took some assumptions for granted without ever explaining them.

The guru presents their frame strongly, persistently, and manipulatively.

Meanwhile the guru might also be doing a cluster of non-frame-control things. When they argue with you, they imply (maybe in a kind but firm voice, maybe with an undertone of social threat) that you’re kinda stupid for disagreeing for them. It’s clear they might stop inviting you to their social scene, which had been providing a lot of meaning in your life. Maybe you’ve let other friendships atrophy (in part because the guru argued those friendships were bad for you), such that if you stopped getting invited you’d feel very alone.

The guru can be a literal cult leader, who systematically cut off your social ties. Or they could be a fairly ordinary charismatic leader of a friend group, and you ended up in this position sort of unintentionally.

The guru can leave you deeply confused and maybe scarred. Some of their actions make sense to me to characterize as “frame control”, and some does not.

v. The weak, distorted friend

The guru had an undertone of competence and strength. But one of the most important lessons I’ve learned is that frame distortions can happen from weak friends who seemed helpless and alone.

The weak friend is depressed, you’re one of the few people they turns to. They clearly traumatized by something that’s left her thinking kind of distorted, she’s constantly talking about ways society has hurt her. Their thinking is so obviously distorted, and they seems pathetic enough, that you don’t take it seriously.

They has a lot of good qualities. You’re sure that if they climbed out of their depressive spiral they’d be a good friend who was helpful to your shared community. So, you put a lot of effort into helping them.

But the weak friend has a strongly held frame, and they persistently insist on it. When you try to talk them out of it, they responds with distorted frames and subtle errors that you don’t always catch. You frequently try to engage them in their frame, to try to make one-small-point (“Okay I can maybe see your case for A, B and C, but those don’t necessarily imply D”). The result is that you find yourself naturally thinking in her frame even though you think it’s clearly coming from trauma and isn’t very accurate or useful. And like the guru, you find yourself thinking about propositions A, B, C and D instead of L, M, N, O, P when those would be more helpful.

The weak friend is genuinely exactly what they appears to be, a hurt person who desperately needs help and maybe someday could climb out of her depression pit. Nontheless, the weak, distorted friend can fuck with you just as badly as the guru. You end up spending years of your life trying to help her, and it’s never enough. Your thinking can get distorted and less helpful.

Sometimes the line between the weak friend and the guru is blurry. “The guru” brings to mind a charismatic leader. The weak friend could assemble a small friend group who are all trying to help her and gravitate around her, while seeming extremely uncharismatic. The dynamics can all be similar.

vi. The boss with a strong (mostly healthy) vision

You work for a company with a vision, with a leader who has a clear conception of what they want to accomplish in the world, and why. They have a strong frame that guides all their decisions, and by proxy, it guides all your projects and how you get evaluated at the company.

They are not inordinately manipulative, but like most humans, they sometimes accidentally equivocate, draw false dichotomies, etc. Their strong, persistent frame, combined with baseline-amounts-of-frame-manipulation, adds up to you feeling a bit disorienting and hard to think.

This… isn’t necessarily wrong—shared frames are capital investments in coordination, after all. The strong shared frame allows a team of people to work on a difficult task, with a clear understanding of how all their work fits together. If the boss also encourages a healthy work-life balance, and they listen when you periodically bring up alternative views (although it sometimes takes a bit of effort to get them to realize you’re debating their frame), this can avoid the extremes of how The Guru might have affected you.

Nonetheless, this can affect how you think in a longterm way, which persists after you leave the company. In some sense, you might think of “getting a bit frame controlled” here as one of things you are getting paid for. The boss’s frame isn’t crazy, just tunnel-visioned, so this isn’t exactly harmful. But it maybe changes the sorts of decisions you might make for years to come.

vii. A pervasive standard of beauty and meaning

No one person is in charge or even necessarily doing this on purpose. But, advertisements, books and movies throughout your entire life have told you to be attractive in particular ways, to pursue particular kinds of relationships, to grow up, get married, have a big wedding, have 2.1 kids with a white picket fence, work 9-5, retire, etc.

Society shapes what sort of thoughts that are natural to think. What sort of questions and goals you’ll consider.

Maybe all your friends in your social group agree this is kinda silly… but you were all raised in the same culture. And even though you don’t endorse it, you might find yourselves all all giving each other a little bit of side-eye if you’re gaining weight, or been single too long, or working a low-status job.

The Social Frame is persistent, and while it’s not overwhelmingly manipulative, it’s propagated by people who are still baseline human manipulative (which is again, nonzero). This adds up to some lifelong distortions for many people that they may find hard to disentangle.

But… what do you think?

I was awkwardly conscious while writing this that… I sure had a strong frame about how frame control works. And each of my examples has a bit of an undertone of “what Raemon thinks was important”, beyond merely illustrating the example.

I have more thoughts about what frame control looks like, and what sorts of things are useful for countering frame control. But given the nature of the topic, it’d feel particularly ironic if I rushed to propose solutions before giving people time to think about the problem, do original seeing on it, and reflect on their own experiences.

So, let’s stop here for now. What have your experiences been like? What seems important about this to you?

Related Work

Most-but-not-all of these were linked earlier, but for convenience:

  1. ^

    Logan Strohl wrote a good shortform post about how listening to someone else’s ontology about an experience can make it harder to think about it. This seems particularly important (or at least, particularly ironic to cause?) in the case of discussing Frame Control.