The Evocation Model of Framing11 min read

In a forthcoming article, my coauthors and I outline what we call an “evocation model” of framing by which a frame, understood as a situated assemblage of material objects and settings (i.e., a form of public culture), activates schemas, understood as flexible, multimodal memory structures (i.e., a form of personal culture), evoking embodied responses (Wood et al. 2018). In this post, I will discuss several empirical examples from conceptual metaphor research that are consistent with our model and which expand it in promising ways.

Conceptual Metaphor Theory

Conceptual Metaphor Theory (CMT) asserts that much of our reasoning about abstract concepts is based on analogical mapping, whereby some more familiar source is used to understand and make inferences about some less familiar target. For example, Lakoff (2008:383) argues that people typically understand anger metaphorically as a hot fluid in a container. Following this metaphorical mapping, the body is understood as a container for emotions, emotions are understood as substances, and anger itself is understood as heated substance. This metaphorical mapping is manifest linguistically in phrases such as “you got my blood boiling,” “she was fuming,” and “he’s really steamed up.” It is also often manifest visually in similar ways. Consider, for example, the depiction of anger in the movie, Inside Out: Anger is red, boxlike, and at times, literally exploding with fire. This particular conceptual metaphor is extremely common across different cultures (Talebi-Dastenaei 2015).


Metaphors and Schemas

The mapping of a source onto a target in CMT may be also described as the activation of a particular schema in relation to a task. In some cases, such as describing the experience of anger, there is one dominant schematic network guiding meaning construction. In other cases, there are multiple accessible schemas–multiple sources–which could easily be activated for a specified task. In our paper, we argue that framing is the process by which a frame (understood as an assemblage of material objects that may include anything tactile such as text, sounds, visible objects, smells, etc.) activates schemas, and this activation evokes a particular response. A quickly-expanding field of experimental research on CMT supports this model.

Schematic Activation and Reasoning about Crime

Thibodeau and Boroditsky (2011) find that activating particular schemas over others when describing a social problem affects the kinds of solutions people propose to address the problem. In one experiment they told two groups of participants about increasing crime rates in the fictional city of Addison, gave relevant statistics, and asked for possible solutions. They described crime in Addison metaphorically as a beast preying on the city to the first group, and as a virus infecting the city to the second group. Remarkably, despite having the same crime statistics, individuals in the different groups clustered around different solutions: “When crime was framed metaphorically as a virus, participants proposed investigating the root causes and treating the problem by enacting social reform to inoculate the community, with emphasis on eradicating poverty and improving education. When crime was framed metaphorically as a beast, participants proposed catching and jailing criminals and enacting harsher enforcement laws.” Additionally, Thibodeau and Boroditsky found that participants were unaware of the role of the metaphorical framing on their own thinking–both groups believed their solutions were rooted solely in the available data–suggesting that the framing effect was covert.

These findings suggest that when multiple schemas may be fittingly activated to support reasoning, the schema that is activated may in large part determine the result people come to. Recent sociological work on schematic understandings of poverty reaches a similar conclusion (Homan, Valentino, and Weed 2017).

Schematic Activation and Creative Thinking

In some cases, schematic activation influences cognitive performance more than predisposing someone to one outcome over another. For example, Leung et al. (2012) identify several metaphors which express creative thinking–considering a problem “on one hand, and then the other,” “thinking outside the box,” and “putting two and two together”–and ask whether physically embodying these metaphors actually makes people more creative. In a series of studies, Leung et al. have participants perform different tasks measuring convergent thinking (“the search for the best answer or the most creative solution to a problem”) or divergent thinking (“the generation of many ideas about and alternative solutions to a problem”) while being in either a controlled or experimental condition. Participants in the experimental condition for the “thinking on one hand, and then the other” metaphor were asked to generate ideas for using a campus building while physically holding out one hand and pointing to a wall, then switching hands and pointing to the other wall and generate more ideas. Leung et al. found that participants in the experimental condition generated more ideas (evidence of higher divergent thinking) than those in the control conditions.

To test the “thinking outside the box” metaphor, participants were assigned to perform a convergent thinking task in one of three conditions: sitting inside a 5×5 foot box constructed with pvc pipe and cardboard, sitting outside the 5×5 foot box, or sitting in a room without a box present. Leung et. al found that participants in the outside-the-box condition generated more correct answers than either two conditions–literally thinking outside the box seems to have helped them think outside the box metaphorically. In a related study, they had other participants perform a divergent thinking task while either walking freely, walking in a fixed, rectangular path, or not walking at all. Here they found that participants who walked freely generated more new ideas.

Together, these findings highlight the subtle influence of one’s environment on cognitive performance. While framing in sociology is typically understood as influencing what people think, it may be beneficial to also consider how certain frames facilitate or inhibit particular cognitive tasks.

Schematic Matching and Evaluating Drug Effectiveness

Keefer et al (2014) demonstrate an extension of our framework with their theory of “metaphoric fit.” The authors argue that when people evaluate the effectiveness of an abstract solution to an abstract problem, people are more likely to positively evaluate the effectiveness of the solution if the problem and the solution are understood via the same metaphors (i.e. the same schemas are activated in relation to both). They test this specifically with a series of experiments about a fictional drug proposed to treat depression. In one experiment, they described to participants the drug “Liftix” (the solution) with vertical metaphors: (e.g., “has been shown to lift mood”; “patients everywhere have reported feeling uplifted”). Two groups were given this same description of Liftix, but each group received a different description of depression (the problem). In one condition, participants were given a description of depression that activated the same verticality schema: “(“Depressed individuals feel that while other people’s lives have both ups and downs, their life has considerably more downs”). In the other condition, depression was described more literally: (“Depressed individuals feel that while other people’s lives have both positive and negative periods, their life has considerably more negative periods”). Both groups then rated how effective they thought Liftix would be. Participants in the metaphor-matching condition were more likely to give Liftix a higher rating. The authors replicated the experiment by activating LIGHT/DARK rather than UP/DOWN and found the same results. They also replicated the experiment by activating these schemas visually rather than linguistically, and again saw the same outcomes.

This study suggests that the evocation of a particular response may not be the result of activating a particular schema alone, but the interrelations of activated schemas. As such, it offers an intriguing expansion to our model and suggests that a more relational schematic analysis may sometimes be necessary.


A growing body of experimental research supports the core of our evocation model of framing. In various ways, the physical environment may be manipulated to activate particular schemas or combinations of schemas, and this activation evokes particular responses. In some cases, this activation may affect what people think, and in other cases, how well they think.

Although each of the studies I cited here is experimental, I note that the analysis of schemas, frames, and framing need not be limited to experiments. For example, a researcher might wish to know the variety of ways people schematically understand a concept before constructing an experiment, as Homan et al. (2017) do in their study of poverty. Alternatively, a researcher may lean on established experimental results to make inferences about the consequences of observed frames “in the wild.” Beyond this, research may focus also on the development and diffusion of particular models of frames, as we discuss in the forthcoming paper. The bottom line is that experimental work has been helpful for giving empirical support for the basic theoretical framework, but researchers should consider experimental research as just one piece of a larger puzzle.


Gibbs, Raymond W. and Raymond W. Gibbs Jr. 2017. Metaphor Wars. Cambridge University Press.

Homan, Patricia, Lauren Valentino, and Emi Weed. 2017. “Being and Becoming Poor: How Cultural Schemas Shape Beliefs About Poverty.” Social Forces; a Scientific Medium of Social Study and Interpretation 95(3):1023–48.

Keefer, Lucas A., Mark J. Landau, Daniel Sullivan, and Zachary K. Rothschild. 2014. “Embodied Metaphor and Abstract Problem Solving: Testing a Metaphoric Fit Hypothesis in the Health Domain.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 55:12–20.

Lakoff, George. 2008. Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things. University of Chicago Press.

Leung, Angela K. Y. et al. 2012. “Embodied Metaphors and Creative ‘Acts.’” Psychological Science 23(5):502–9.

Talebi-Dastenaei, Mahnaz. 2015. “Ecometaphor: The Effect of Ecology and Environment on Shaping Anger Metaphors in Different Cultures.” Retrieved (

Thibodeau, Paul H. and Lera Boroditsky. 2011. “Metaphors We Think with: The Role of Metaphor in Reasoning.” PloS One 6(2):e16782.

Wood, Michael Lee, Dustin S. Stoltz, Justin Van Ness, and Marshall A. Taylor. 2018. “Schemas and Frames.” Retrieved (

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  1. Pingback: What’s Cultural About Analogical Mapping? – Culture, Cognition, and Action (culturecog)

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