Narrow Framers

I like to write about the irrational nature of human thinking because it reminds me that I don’t have all the answers figured out, and it reminds me that I often make decisions that feel like the best decision in the moment, but likely isn’t the best decision if I were to step back to be more considerate. Daniel Kahneman writes about instances where we fail to be rational actors in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, and his examples have helped me better understand my own thinking process and the context in which I make decisions that feel logically consistent, but likely fall short of being truly rational.


In one example, Kahneman describes humans as narrow framers, failing to take multiple outcomes into consideration and focusing instead on a limited set of salient possibilities. He writes, “Imagine a longer list of 5 simple (binary) decisions to be considered simultaneously. The broad (comprehensive) frame consists of a single choice with 32 options. Narrow framing will yield a sequence of 5 simple choices. The sequence of 5 choices will be one of the 32 options of the broad frame. Will it be the best? Perhaps, but not very likely. A rational agent will of course engage in broad framing, but Humans are by nature narrow framers.”


In the book Kahneman writes that we think sequentially and address problems only as they arise. We don’t have the mental capacity to hold numerous outcomes (even simple binary outcomes) in our mind simultaneously and make predictions on how the world will respond to each outcome. If we map out decisions and create tables, charts, and diagrams then we have a chance of making rational decisions with complex information, but if we don’t outsource the information to a computer or to pen and paper, then we are going to make narrow short-term choices. We will consider a simple set of outcomes and discount other combinations of outcomes that we don’t expect. In general, we will progress one outcome at a time, reacting to the world and making choices individually as the situation changes, rather than making long-term decisions before a problem has arisen.


Deep thinking about complex systems is hard and our brains default toward lower energy and lower effort decision-making. We only engage our logical and calculating System 2 part of the brain when it is needed, and even then, we only engage it for one problem at a time with a limited set of information that we can easily observe about the world. This means that our thinking tends to focus on the present, without full consideration of the future consequences of our actions and decisions. It also means that our thinking is limited and doesn’t contain the full set of our data that might be necessary for making accurate and rational choices or predictions. When necessary, we build processes, systems, and structures to help our minds be more rational, but that requires getting information out of our heads, and outsourcing the effort to technologies beyond the brain, otherwise our System 2 will be bogged down and overwhelmed by the complexity of the information in the world around us.

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