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Framing Our Reality

What is Framing?

Over time, how we started off in life becomes less of a defining characteristic than the decisions we made. A few big decisions may stand out – such as choosing a college major, partner to date, and first job. But these often amount to surface level characterizations that provide little depth. It is the little decisions that accumulate to define our self-image, personality, and perception of life. Moreover, our little decisions shape what we buy, whom we vote for, and what we get out of life.

Given the importance of decision-making it is confounding how susceptible we are to framing. It is understandable that when presented with different information, we can reach different conclusions. Under framing, however, the information presented is itself identical but the manner in how it is presented swings decision making. In other words, we exhibit context dependency when making judgements to such an extent that we can make the wrong decision simply because of the context.

Cognitive Illusions

Framing is an impairment of our cognition. This is an evolutionary holdover that subjugates rational thought processes to compulsive and emotional reactions.

Like optical illusions, framing causes cognitive illusions that people can believe in with high certitude. The Müller-Lyer illusion test devised in 1889 can demonstrate how our visual perception can be distorted by framing. Of the two parallel lines below, which is longer?

Most people say the top of the two is longer as the arrowheads make it appear longer. However, the lines themselves are equivalent and the presentation of information superfluous to the question impacts our perception.

Prospect Theory

For much of the 20th century, economics held that people are rational – that always we make risk-adjusted decisions based on probabilistic analysis. The quantitative view of human decision began to crumble with the advent of Prospect Theory which maintains that most people make decisions based on the potential value of losses and gains rather than the outcome.

In a classic study 1981 study, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman explored how different phrasing affected participants’ responses to a choice in a hypothetical life and death situation. Two groups of participants were asked to choose between two treatments for 600 people afflicted with a deadly disease.

The first group was presented with Treatment A framing in a positive light and 72% of participants chose it. However, when Treatment A was presented in a negative light for the second group, only 22% of participants made the same choice.

Framing Treatment A Treatment B
Positive “Saves 200 lives” “A 33% chance of saving all 600 people, 66% possibility of saving no one.”
Negative “400 people will die” “A 33% chance that no people will die, 66% probability that all 600 will die.”

When alternatives are presented, most people react differently depending on whether the options are presented as losses or gains. People tend to avoid uncertainty when a positive frame is presented but seek that same risk when a negative frame is presented. The researchers explained these observations using Prospect Theory.

Framing in Society

Arguably, framing is the most powerful persuasion technique and has been used long before the advent of economics. It is ever present in mundane interactions at all levels of society.

Re-framing options to influence decisions is accomplished by re-phrasing or changing the different context surrounding the option. Marketers constantly experiment using AB tests to decide which frames are more successful. For example, when a company changed their headline from “Businesses grow faster online!” to “Create a webpage for your business” their conversion of viewers to customers nearly doubled. The reframing of the headline from the passive abstraction to an outcome-oriented action was enough to get people to pay money. In other words, the frame reduced ambiguity of something intangible by adding context so that the audience knew exactly what to do.

Even without outright lying, subtle differences in context could be used to convince audiences to believe preferred interpretation of events. It is important to point out that intent is of the outmost importance. Using rhetoric to point out the benefits of a deal are important in negotiations that create benefits for both parties. Spin doctors, on the other hand, use their rhetorical prowess to warp the context and conceal truth. Demagogues manipulate the emotions of unwitting citizens to dehumanize people until acts of genocide become acceptable.

Take Away

We are not destined to a life of poor choices despite the omnipresence of framing. Practicing mindfulness is a way to rely less on our ancient reptilian brain. By slowing down decision making we can rely less on compulsion and bare emotions. Moreover, through thought or communication with others, we see how reframing affects our decisions.

Moreover, the stories that we tell ourselves about our reality shape our perception of it. These frames take time to develop but impact the relationships we form in our life. Research notes that assuming the worst in people creates a self-fulfilling prophecy wherein we continue to confirm our suspicions and make the relationships ever more toxic. PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi says the best piece of career advice she’s ever received was to “assume positive intent.”

Likewise, visualizing others as positive forces in our lives can be helpful as well. These and other techniques that we can use to encourage Gratitude, Goodwill, and Compassion help flood our systems with oxytocin for additional positive sensations.

Traveling out of our comfort zones – to developing or war torn regions – can help reframe our contextualization of happiness.  An inspirational story from Senator Booker illustrates that power that we have over setting our realities and the impact that we have on others through our interactions.  As Senator Booker tells the story, the inspiration to become a leader in Newark came the day he knocked on the door of Virginia Jones, head of the tenants’ association at Brick Towers, one of the city’s worst housing projects. Booker, then a tenants’ rights lawyer for the Urban Justice Center in New York City, introduced himself and said he wanted to help:

And she looked at me and she said, “You want to help me?” and I said, “Yes, I do.” And she said, “Well, ok.” She closed the door and she said, “Follow me.” She walks down five flights of stairs, I follow after her, she walks through the courtyard through some drug dealers, I walked very close to her at that point, and got right into the middle of the street, traffic going both ways. And she wheels around and she says, “Tell me, if you really want to help me, tell me what you see around you.” And I look around and go, “What do you mean?” And she said, “Describe what you see.” And I said, “Ok, I see decaying buildings, I see an abandoned home, I see guys involved in the narcotic trade,” which I said in a very respectful tone, and I described the neighborhood.

And this powerful, dignified, African American elder looked at me with such disappointment bordering on disgust. She just shook her head and said, “You can’t help me.” She turns around and starts walking to the side of the road. I stand there bewildered and confused, weave through traffic, get to the side of the road, and said, “Ma’am, what are you talking about?” She wheels around, she’s was about five feet and a smidgeon, and she looks up at me at 6’3” and at that point I felt like I was looking up to her and she said to me, “Boy, you need to understand something. The world you see outside of you is a reflection of what you have inside of you. And if you’re one of those people who only sees problems and darkness and despair that’s all it’s ever going to be. But if you’re one of those people who no matter what, when you open your eyes you see hope, you see opportunity, you see love, you see the face of God, then you can be someone who helps me.

She walks away, I look down and think to myself, “OK, Grasshopper, that’s the end of the lesson.” I went back to her apartment the next day. I sat there for days watching this woman join with other women in those buildings, create light and transformation and be there for others. They would hold events for kids whatever the holiday was, in a dank basement; that’s what I saw but they transformed it every opportunity they had into a celebration. You name it; Flag Day, St. Patrick’s Day even though there wasn’t an Irish person within blocks of there. They changed the world. And out of those buildings came community activists, nonprofits, out of those buildings that building turned by, and drove by with disgust and disdain and disregard or fear, they created an oasis. This is the power that you have if you choose not to surrender it. You can transform reality with your very thoughts. You have a choice in every moment of your life. This is the story of humanity, it is the great moment. Every second you can choose accept conditions as they are or take responsibility for changing them.

What do you think?


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