What is Framing and How Does It Affect My Life?

Have you ever thought about how the words you use to describe an event or a situation in your life may determine the outcome or impact your reality?

Here’s an example from Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow: “Italy won; France lost.”

Kahneman asked, “Do those statements have the same meaning? The answer depends entirely on what you mean by meaning?”

From a purely logical stance, the statements mean the same thing. “For the purpose of logical reasoning, the two descriptions of the outcome of the match are interchangeable because they designate the same state of the world. As philosophers say, their truth conditions are identical: if one of the statements is true, then the other is true as well,” Kahneman wrote.

But the average person doesn’t want to get tied up with logical reasoning. According to Kahneman’s book, they also base many of their thoughts on the faster, more emotional state of mind.

He wrote, “There is another sense of meaning, in which ‘Italy won’ and ‘France lost’ do not have the same meaning at all… The two sentences evoke markedly different associations. ‘Italy won’ evokes thoughts of the Italian team and what it did to win. ‘France lost’ evokes thoughts of the French team and what it did that caused it to lose.”

In his story, Kahneman discussed a person’s feelings based on the terms used to describe the events. According to his research, losing evokes stronger negative emotions than winning. Losses hurt worse than costs. If we perceive a gain, we tend to be happier with the results regardless of our price.

Kahneman illustrated the concept of framing, a way for our brains to find patterns in chaos. While two statements may be equally valid, e.g., 80% lean beef vs. 20% fat, they are not “emotionally equivalent.”

We don’t usually use our rational brains (system 2) in these snap decisions but defer to our intuitive and emotional faculties (system 1). Marketers, politicians, and pundits of all kinds use this bias against us every day.

And it’s not just for marketing or propaganda. Framing plays a factor in how we ask questions about a given topic. In his book, Technopoly, Neil Postman wrote, “The form of a question may block us from seeing solutions to problems that become visible through a different question.” Postman gave several examples.

In one, a Catholic priest asked the Pope, “is it permissible to smoke while praying?” The Pope informed him that it was not, since prayer should be the main focus. Another priest asked, “is it permissible to pray while smoking?” To this, the Pope replied that it was okay, since it was always appropriate to pray.

Postman described a situation in a little Lithuanian town in another more pointed display of how framing a question provides various solutions to the same problem. A curious disease was killing the townsfolk, or often, putting them in a death-like coma. The people didn’t have modern medicine to tell who was dead and who was just in a coma.

The townspeople called a meeting and gathered to ask what could be done about this situation. There were two groups of people, separated by how they approached the problem.

One group wanted to put food and water in the coffins and drill a hole in the top so that if the person wasn’t dead, he could stay alive for a little while and wake up before burial. The second group suggested attaching a stake to the coffin lid above the victim’s heart to ensure he wasn’t buried alive when the lid was closed.

The solutions offered were framed by the questions asked: “How can we make sure we do not bury people who are still alive?” and “How can we make sure that everyone we bury is dead?”

Knowledge of framing can help you know when someone is attempting to dupe you. It can also help you ask better questions.

In a world where marketers constantly attempt to sell us something or run into problems to which we have no solutions, we need better semantic understanding. What does a word mean, and does that meaning change in a different context? What are the motives of the person using the word?

As visual and emotional stimulation become the norm in our society, we would do well to remember that our ability to think critically is tied to our ability to think verbally. If we can’t interrogate what’s being said or written, how will we know if it is meant for our benefit or our harm? Learning how framing works is but a tiny step, but it is a vital step indeed.

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