Saturday, April 23, 2011

Its all in the frame (behavioural economics)

It's a long weekend, so let's play a game. Tell me this: are eagles large? And, next, are cabins small? If you said yes to both, congratulations - you're right. But if you said no to both, you're not wrong. In fact, you're just as right as the others are.

Relative to other birds, eagles are large. And relative to other buildings, cabins are small. But if you compare an eagle with a cabin, eagles are small and cabins are large.

Get it? Whether eagles and cabins are large or small depends on what you're comparing them with. Or, as they say in the classics, everything's relative.

And this, believe it or not, is one of the great discoveries of cognitive psychology.

Part of that discovery is that the way we react to situations or propositions is heavily dependent on the way they're framed, as psychologists say - the way they're packaged, the context in which they're put.

We can react differently to the same proposition depending on how it's framed. A classic example: even doctors say a 90 per cent success rate for operations is more acceptable than a 10 per cent failure rate.

The people who didn't need psychologists to tell them our reactions to things are influenced by the way they're framed are advertising and marketing types. They know that draping a girl in a bikini over a sports car can help sell more of them. What's the logical link between a good-looking young woman and a motor car? There's none - but the young bucks (and ageing baby boomers) who buy sports cars can imagine one.

Although it comforts economists to kid themselves that advertising is purely informational, in truth almost all advertising is about framing - drawing unspoken links between the product you're trying to flog and some attractive situation or emotion. Their not-so-subtle message is, buy my margarine (or sliced bread) and you'll have a happy, healthy family. In the advertisers' adage, you sell the sizzle, not the steak.

But framing goes far wider than advertising. It's the reason you should be sceptical of the results interest groups quote from the opinion polls they commission. It's too easy to influence the answers you get by the way you frame the questions you ask.

And don't forget that political spin is a form of framing. It's about portraying situations or decisions in ways that reflect more favourably on the pollies involved.

Their opponents, of course, try to frame the same situations or decisions in a more negative light.

But in Practical Wisdom, a new book by two academics at Swarthmore College, near Philadelphia, Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe, they observe that stories like these have given framing a bad name that's unwarranted.

Why? Because there's no alternative to framing. That's the great discovery of cognitive psychology: just about the only way we can get our minds around anything is to compare it with something we already know about.

Years ago an editor reminded me of the classical rule of rhetoric that argument by analogy is invalid. Sorry, it turns out that the only way we learn is by comparing things we don't understand with things we do understand.

This doesn't mean every analogy-based argument is correct, of course, just that there's no other way to argue.

The term frame is itself a metaphor. Schwartz and Sharpe say it's a wonderful one because it emphasises our capacity to take the chaos of the social world around us and organise it in an understandable way.

The capacity we have to frame enables us to do one of the most important things the exercise of practical wisdom demands: discern what's relevant about a particular context or event in regard to the decision we face.