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February 6, 2007

Effective Framing

I recently finished reading Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed. Yeah, I know, a few years after it came out, but I've been a touch busy and there were a lot of other books in the queue ahead of it.

Anyway, reading it reminded me of my experience working at a discount store in Massachusetts in the 90's, and something I realized when I was working there.

Like a lot of those places, The Store (not its real name, duh) had a personality test they gave you as part of the employment process. And while I took it I struggled to figure out why they were giving the test, when it was obvious to anybody that there were right and wrong answers. The answer, I realized, was framing.

I'd love to do a research project on this sometime, but the idea is this: if you give somebody a personality test and then tell them their results were acceptable for an employee, you created a frame for yourself in their mind as knowing something about them that maybe they don't even know. I suspect this is even more true with people who are not highly educated and in the midst of doing a statistical analysis of dialect, and therefore hyper-aware of social markers.

Employers use this to control their employees. It was well known at The Store that the biggest theft problem was from employees, and those security cameras were trained on us, not the customers. But stores can't watch employees all the time. For example, we were not supposed to go dumpster-diving in the store dumpsters, I guess on the theory that we'd be more likely to throw things away if we could. But in the back of the storage room the guys kept a little box with some of the better pieces of junk in it: one example is a broken baby bottle; the nipple top was salvageable. Those of us who knew about it would check the box every now and then, and management never knew about it. They didn't just look the other way: while I was working there two employees were fired for taking cardboard boxes (trash) from the storage room to move house.

Since stores can't control their employees absolutely through direct means, they have to create a self-controlling staff. Part of doing this was the training video they showed us with all the security measures: they showed us how we were being observed and how our movements were watched at all times (in reality, security simply did not have the manpower to watch every camera all the time). And there was the test.

The test was designed, they told us, to determine whether you were honest enough to work for The Store. It was a very simple 50-question personality test, which tested your honesty all the subtlety of an axe slicing butter. Questions were things like "Is it ever OK to steal from the company?" I mean, get real.

But the real success of the test on my coworkers was that it convinced them that there was some secret knowledge imparted to the company by the test, some way that they had subconsciously revealed their innermost selves, perhaps even tendencies they knew nothing about. One coworker once mentioned to me that he wondered if the test told them who would be promoted to management.

For myself, I didn't see the test as showing anything. I had taken many intelligence and personality tests by that point and knew how to recognize a real test. A real personality test doesn't have obvious right or wrong answers, and leads you to reveal an answer indirectly, not by asking the question outright. And yet, at the same time, I would catch myself wondering what that test actually told them. Even when I knew it was just a framing device and perhaps a weeding tool for removing the stupidest applicants.

That's how powerful framing can be.

Posted by ayse on 02/06/07 at 11:42 PM

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