An Introduction To Propriety Frames

Part Of: Demystifying Ethics sequence
Content Summary: 1000 words, 10 min read


Two important debates in philosophy of ethics go as follows:

  1. Are our moral beliefs true, in some objective sense? 
  2. Is there some objective way to resolve moral disagreements, or claim moral progress? Or is it impossible to compare different moral systems?

For centuries, philosophers have wrestled with these issues. But the question of how minds construct morals in the first place, is underexplored.

Let me attempt to close the gap. In what follows, I describe probable mechanisms by which primates acquire intuitions about right and wrong.

We begin with a simple distinction:

  • Social attitudes (should / should not) are intuitions of socially appropriate behavior.
  • Moral attitudes (good / evil) are also judgments about behavior, but more associated with anger, inflexibility, and condemnation.

I submit that these two attitudes are weaved with the same fabric. To show this, I will address the following:

  1. What are social attitudes? 
  2. Why do our social attitudes have the specific contents that they do?
  3. Can moral attitudes be derived from social attitudes?

By the end, I hope you emerge with a clear understanding of how social and moral attitudes are constructed, shared, and used.

Propriety Frames

We are constantly immersed in highly structured interactions. The volume of these experiences can make social rules seem obvious: they become practically invisible. But by traveling to a sufficiently remote culture, or even spending time around a severely autistic person, we may begin to appreciate the sheer complexity of social norms.

Consider a typical evening at a fancy restaurant: how many social rules can you think of? Here are a few examples of “breaking the rules”:

  1. The waiter states he is not in the mood to take your order.
  2. Several guests are engaged in a foodfight.
  3. The food is dumped directly on the table.
  4. On taking a bite, you realize that your meal is actually plastic: an artistic creation designed purely for visual effect.
  5. An extravagant item on the menu is free of charge.
  6. Instead of payment, the manager comes out to request that you wait tables next weekend.

This list could go on for many pages. It may take a while to generate such a list, but you could immediately recognize if any one of thousands of such “rule violations” occur. This suggests that your brain contains vast amounts of social information. But how is this information acquired? How is it retained?

In social psychology, schema or frames are often employed as useful ways to bundle collections of facts. Frames can nest within one another. For example, our restaurant expectations are a propriety frame with three constituents: Host-Guest, Eating, and Place Of Business. Surprises {1, 2} are violations of the host-guest frame, {3, 4} countermand the eating frame, {5, 6} negate the place of business frame.

Propriety Frames- Restaurant Example (3)

Propriety frames store knowledge of socially appropriate behaviors, just as semantic memory retains factual knowledge. Whereas semantic memory can be communicated in simple sentences, norms are communicated in larger narrative structure. Norm synchronization plays a large role in the human delight in stories

This simple model provides great insight into common social experiences. When you watch a mother instruct her son to not to yell in the store, you are watching the child install an update to his Shopping frame. When a family exchanges gossip around a campfire, they are synchronizing their frames.

Frame Attractors

How are propriety frames represented within the brain?

A clue comes from semantic representation. It seems that the brain has not one, but three languages through which it encodes facts:

  1. Prototypes are bodies of statistical knowledge about a category. A Dog prototype could store properties that are diagnostic of the class of dogs.
  2. Exemplars are bodies of knowledge about individual members of a category. An Dog exemplar would be e.g., of the last dog you saw.
  3. Theories are bodies of causal, functional, and nomological knowledge about categories. A Dog theory would consist of such knowledge.

A frame doesn’t need to be huge lists of rules. It is more flexibly encoded as a prototype: a statistical “center of gravity” which represents a behavioral ideal. This prototype need not correspond to observed behavior, just as you can understand triangles without encountering a geometrically perfect triangle.

Let us imagine behavior space, where complex behaviors are compressed into dots at a single location. In this picture, our propriety frame is just another point.

On this metaphor, violations of social rules are simple vector calculations, from observed behavior to that person’s moral standard. A propriety frame is an attractor which compares all observed behavior to itself.

Propriety Frames- Prototypes As Attractors (1)

If propriety frames were simple lists of rules, it would be hard to explain why some violations appear worse than others. By using prototypes, the brain preserves severity information. The larger the vector, the more salient the violation.

A Physical Mechanism

Recall that brains are organized into two perception-action loops:

  • The Somatic Loop processes the world: it maps perception → action
  • The Visceral Loop processes the body: it maps feeling → motivation.

Semantic memory is extremely perceptual in nature. Sense data travels from skin, eyes, ears, and coalesce into perceptual object files such as Dog.

In our discussion so far, we have described the role of frames in social appraisal. However, propriety frames serve two distinct functions:

  1. Action: The Restaurant Frame produces motor command signals, which travel towards primary motor cortex, then down the brainstem.
  2. Appraisal: The Restaurant Frame compares its behavioral ideal to observed behavior. The output of this comparison is then delivered to our limbic systems. This is why inappropriate behavior can cause an emotional reaction, and also motivate us to act (e.g., to exchange awkward looks).

Propriety Frames- Two Loops (5)

Hume once remarked that it is hard to see how descriptive science can relate to prescriptive attitudes. However, the solution to this is-ought gap has become clear. Cognitive science can bridge the gap by describing how propriety frames drive our motivational apparati.


The brain contains many knowledge systems. Propriety frames are just another such system.  

Consider the sentence “So, Jane and I visited this restaurant, and the waiter says to me …”. As your brain’s Visual Word Form Area (VWFA) processes the symbols within that sentence, your brain will automatically retrieve information about the people, nouns, and social conventions relevant to that sentence. This information is then brought into the Global Workspace of conscious attention.

Propriety Frames- Situation Canvas (1)

Propriety frames are simply another service provided by our wonderful brains. 🙂 Next time, we will explore how this system comes to develop specific judgments about behavior.

Until next time.


2 thoughts on “An Introduction To Propriety Frames

  1. A lot of this makes sense, particularly the vector representation for “strength of disagreement” and the relational network for establishing expectations. One piece that isn’t clear to me in this framework is the role of intentionality. More specifically, our understandings of one’s intentions seems to drastically modulate the magnitude of the vector (e.g., accidental harm has a different vector than intentional harm). Any thoughts on how that plays into this?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Travis, great question!

      Our mind comes equipped with mindreading software (I have a series on the neural machinery for this) which computes intentionality. Amusingly, introspection is little more than the guess of our mindreading software turned against ourselves.

      While it could be argued that intention is directly embedded into our propriety frames, it seems more likely that such information is integrated only after a norm violation has occurred. On this view, only once social behavior deviates from some propriety attractor, do we look more closely at factors such as intention. This would also be the genesis point of the Fundamental Attribution Error.

      Disclosure that I intend to ultimately elaborate on this starting point with the following four posts:

      1) In Social Intuition Generators we will see how limbic machinery, such as the Care module, generate propriety frames.
      2) In Generators vs Frames we will see how generators and frames interact, and facilitate both top-down and bottom-up learning.
      3) In Moral Tagging, we will see how, for a *small subset* of social violations (inappropriate behavior), the brain tags such events as morally intolerable.
      4) In Norm Synchronization, we will see how the brain uses punishment & reputation to preserve norm homogeneity within the group.


      Liked by 1 person

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