Do you remember the last time you took a doctor’s appointment?
If your experience resembles that of the majority, the process looked like this:
1. You had to call up the doctor’s office and check if an appointment was available. If it wasn’t available on the day you wanted it, you were forced to choose the day provided to you, even if it wasn’t ideal. With doctors who have fixed visiting hours on certain days of the week, this is usually the case. There’s no appointment; you get a token with your number on the list of people the doctor will be seeing that day.
2. On the day of your appointment, you had to spend some time in the waiting room, waiting for the doctor to arrive. If you were visiting a hospital, you were assigned a token number by the assistant and asked to wait in the lobby.
3. After the doctor arrived, you had to wait for your turn to consult her.
By this time, you’re already so imprisoned in the frame that this structure has set up for you, that you naturally become subservient and receptive to the doctor’s authority and expertise when you enter their office.
4. All the menial paperwork and logistical communication was done by the assistant, further reinforcing the status of the doctor.
And the more you were forced to bend your schedule and your life around the doctor’s, the more you self-rationalized that the doctor was an authority who deserved this respect.
This is frame control.
Even if it may or may not be strictly intentional in the doctor’s case, and you might simply ascribe the situation above to logistical challenges — the effect this frame has on patients is remarkable.
Frame control quietly and subtly steals power from you and places it in the hands of the other party. The frame is usually enforced by the kind of tacit structure the other imposes on you. And if you aren’t aware, you tend to get limited by the frame and lose most of your choices as a result.
Frame control also determines the standard by which you measure what is good and valuable. Not choosing to abide by these metrics and the frame would necessarily mean that you aren’t a good person.
For instance, a lot of people ask us why we send the newsletter out at odd times, usually late at night.
"Why don't you have a fixed time?"
"Why don't you send it like other newsletters, in the morning?"
"Don't you think readers will miss out on good content if you send it so late at night?"
Let me tell you: It's fully intended.
And the reason is we feel sending a newsletter at a fixed time, preferably early morning, is a market-imposed constraint. Like how short-form content, clickbait, and writing Buzzfeed-y posts "because readers have low attention spans" is a market-imposed constraint.
We simply refuse to accept and work within this imposed frame.
We believe that if our content is good enough, you will make sure you take time out to read it. And if you do not, that means it isn't good enough. At least in your estimation.
We believe that if our writing can't hold readers' attention for more than 2 minutes, we don't deserve to be in the writing business.
We believe that if we make things hard for our readers and they still diligently read our stuff, that would be a great signal for the quality of the work we are shipping.
Everyone is bent on making things easy for their audience. Well, guess what? Easy is a slippery slope to decreasing standards. And easy doesn't get valued.
If we gave you exactly what you asked for, we wouldn't be giving you anything new. Because you can only ask for what you already know and have consumed before.
So, we reject the frame imposed by the market and let our intuition and taste guide us.
Oren Klaff, the author of Pitch Anything, has also written about how Walmart uses frame control to exert negotiating power over its sellers.
The way it does this is by reducing the seller to a commodity and imposing Walmart’s structure on them.
“The world leader in the design, construction, and operation of beta traps is Walmart.
At its headquarters in Bentonville is the world’s most efficient salesperson-grinding apparatus you will ever see. No matter what you have to offer the company, no matter how great its value, to do business with Walmart, you must submit to a process that is designed to beat you down and wipe out your status, all in the name of lower prices.
Think I’m exaggerating?
Go to 702 Southwest Eighth Street in Bentonville. Walk into the lobby. There you will find two enormous reception desks, one on each side of the room, with a hospitality area on the far right filled with grade school–style chairs with writing desks attached to them for those who need to fill out forms. The perimeter of the room is lined with junk-food vending machines for those who need a quick energy boost to endure what is coming. Between the two reception stations is a gleaming blue hallway marked with the Walmart logo that leads to another long hallway lined with dozens of six- by eight-foot meeting rooms. These meeting rooms are equipped with a door, one window, one small table, and four small plastic chairs. These rooms are where Walmart buyers meet with vendors.
Let’s take a look at the company’s process.
First, you sign in, receive a visitor’s badge, and are told to wait in the lobby. You are welcome to enter the company’s hospitality room, and you can purchase candy and Walmart-branded soft drinks from the vending machines. The person you are visiting receives a message that you are in the lobby.
When the buyer is ready to meet, you are paged to the reception desk and walked back to an assigned meeting room, where you are instructed to wait for your buyer to appear. As you are escorted to your assigned meeting room, you are allowed to see other vendors through the small glass windows of their cells. When you reach your cell, you are instructed to remain in the room until you are escorted out. Finally, the door is closed. Eventually, one or two buyers will enter the cell, and your meeting will begin. The meetings are short and focused on price, volume, logistics, your financial ability to support the Walmart account, and then price again. Price is methodically and systematically driven down, whereas your logistical and product-support responsibilities are increased until you can no longer negotiate.
When this point is reached, the Walmart buyers make a decision (buy or not) and move on to the next item in the product category. The frame is so tightly controlled that even the most successful selling techniques do you absolutely no good.
Walmart turns everything into a commodity, and every commodity is acquired through this process. Using scale, magnitude, and domination psychology for purchasing, Walmart has created the most effective frame supercollider in the history of free enterprise. This is an extreme example of how beta trapping strips you of your power and ability to do good business. Old-fashioned sales techniques can help, but you are disadvantaged, you do not control the frame, and you are at the mercy of the buyer.”
Frame controllers often force you to adapt to their turf. They decide the time and method of engagement, they frame the questions and topics worth answering, and they frame the goal.
They will often ask you questions that have a frame embedded into the questions themselves. If you aren’t disagreeable enough, you will be trapped within the frame of the question, even if the question doesn’t make sense in the first place.
Realize that there's always an Option C.
“After 12th grade, do you wish to take up engineering or medicine?”
For a frame controller, “Neither” is not a valid answer as it subverts the frame.
“Should you go for traditional MBA or Stoa?”
You might not need either, actually.
“Here’s how you can crack AIR 100 in JEE.”
The frame controller decides the playing ground you’re supposed to play on, makes it prestigious, and then tries to help you succeed on that playground.
If you look back at your childhood, you will realise that schooling and upbringing in general forces us to choose between binaries:
- Engineering vs. Medicine
- Graduate course vs. Diploma
- Online courses vs. CBCs
- MBA vs. CFA
- Job vs. Startup
“School-think is thinking that you only have to decide between options A and B, without realizing that, in the real world, there is always a third option and sometimes a fourth and a fifth. Yes, life is like a multiple-choice test where you can make up your own answer if you do not like the ones that are given to you.”
— Sven Schneiders
The choice you're offered is not a choice at all; it's like picking one of the two cards the magician is secretly forcing you to select as your card. But it's never YOUR card. No matter what you choose, it will always be the magician's card.
This is a kind of frame control people and brands can also use to manipulate us into thinking A and B are the only options available.
For example, take these famous rivalries between Burger King and Mc Donalds or Wendy's and Taco Bell. I have a hunch that these rivalries are actually fabricated and both brands are secretly in on it, because to the consumers, these rivalries also indirectly convey and instill the flawed notion that these are the only two fast-food brands you can buy from!
Black and white leaves no space for grey.
Being a successful contrarian, then, is not about mindlessly opposing existing narratives. It is about not letting the frame control you and stepping out of it to seek other options and perspectives.
Don't get limited by the frame.
Don't get limited by what's on the menu.
That's real, disruptive agency.
And the first step to being a successful contrarian is avoiding getting trapped in a game whose rules were set by someone else.
Every question and every assertion comes with an implicit frame attached to it. And to think clearly, it is important to be able to see this frame and change it if needed.
Otherwise, you’ll be a slave to the frame and your decision-making will suffer.