Frame Bound vs Reality Bound

Frame Bound vs Reality Bound

My wife works with families with children with disabilities and one of the things I learned from her is how to ask children to do something. When speaking with an adult, we often use softeners when requesting that the other person do something, but this doesn’t work with children. So while we may say to a colleague, a spouse, or a friend, “can you please XYZ,” or “lets call it a night of bowling after this frame, OK?” these sentences don’t work with children. A child won’t quite grasp the way a softener like “OK” is used and they won’t understand that while you have framed an instruction or request as a question you are not actually asking a question or trying to give someone a choice. If you frame an instruction as a choice the child can reply with “no” and then you as a parent are stuck fighting them.

 

What happens in this situation is that children reject the frame bounding that parents present them with. To get around it, parents need to be either more direct or more creative with how they tell their children to do things. You can create a new frame for your child that they can’t escape by saying, “It is time to get ready for dinner, you can either put away your toys, or you can go set the table.” You frame a choice for the child, and they get to chose which action they are going to take, but in reality both are things you want them to do (my wife says this also works with husbands but I think the evidence is mixed).

 

In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman writes, “Unless there is an obvious reason to do otherwise, most of us passively accept decision problems as they are framed and therefore rarely have an opportunity to discover the extent to which our preferences are frame-bound rather than reality-bound.”

 

The examples I gave with talking to children versus talking to adults helps demonstrate how we passively accept the framing for our decisions. We don’t often pause to reconsider whether we should really purchase an item on sale. The discount that we are saving outweighs the fact that we still face a cost when purchasing the item. Our thinking works this way in office settings, in politics, and on the weekends when we can’t decide if we are going to roll out of bed or not. The frame that is applied to our decisions becomes our reality, even if there are more possibilities out there than what we realize.

 

A child rejecting the framing that a parent provides, or conversely a parent creating new frames to shape a child’s decisions and behaviors demonstrates how easily we can fall into frame-bound thinking and how jarring it can be when reality intrudes on the frames we try to live within. Most of the times we accept the frames presented for us, but there can be huge costs if we just go along with the frames that advertisers, politicians, and other people want us to adopt.
Framing Costs and Losses - Joe Abittan

Framing Costs and Losses

Losses evokes stronger negative feelings than costs. Choices are not reality-bound because System 1 is not reality-bound,” writes Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow.

 

We do not like losses. The idea of a loss, of having the status quo changed in a negative way without it being our deliberate choice, is hard for us to accept or justify. Costs, on the other hand, we can accept much more readily, even if the only difference between a cost and a loss is the way we chose to describe it.

 

Kahneman shares an example in his book where he an Amos Tversky did just that, changing the structure of a gamble so that the contestant faced the possible outcome of a $5 loss or where they paid a $5 cost with a possibility of gaining nothing. The potential outcomes of the two gambles is exactly the same, but people interpret the gambles differently based on how the cost/loss is displayed. People are more likely to take a bet when it is posed as a cost and not as a possible loss. System 1, the quick thinking part of the brain, scans the two gambles and has an immediate emotional reaction to the idea of a loss, and that influences the ultimate decision and feeling regarding the two gambles. System 1 is not rationally calculating the two options to see that they are equivalent, it is just acting on the intuition that it experiences.

 

“People will more readily forgo a discount than pay a surcharge. The two may be economically equivalent, but they are not emotionally equivalent.”

 

Kahneman continues to describe research from Richard Thaler who had studied credit-card lobbying efforts to prevent gas stations from charging different rates for cash versus credit. When you pay with a card, there is a transaction processing fee that the vendor pays to the credit card company. Gas stations charge more for credit card purchases because they have to pay a portion on the back end of the all credit transactions that take place. Credit card companies didn’t want gas stations to charge a credit card surcharge, effectively making it more expensive to buy gas with a card than with cash. Ultimately they couldn’t stop gas stations from charging different rates, but they did succeed in changing the framing around the different prices. Cash prices are listed as discounts, shifting the base rate to the credit price. As Kahneman writes, people will skip the extra effort that would garner the cash discount and pay with their cards. However, if people were directly told that there was a credit surcharge, that they had to pay more for the convenience of using their card, it is possible that more individuals would make the extra effort to pay with cash. How we frame a cost or a loss matters, especially because it can shift the baseline for consideration, making us see things as either costs or losses depending on the context, and potentially altering our behavior.
Narrow Framers

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.
The Ideomotor Effect

Ideomotor Effect

I grew up playing basketball and one thing coaches always tell players is that they have to have confidence when they shoot the ball. If you shoot while thinking I hope I don’t miss, then you are going to miss. If you are worried about being yelled at for missing a shot and if you are afraid to miss, then your chances of actually making a shot are slim. At the same time, shooting with confidence, believing you are going to make the shot before you have even caught the ball, is going to make it more likely that you will score. Visualizing a perfect swish before you shoot, the wisdom of all my coaches said, and your swish will come true, but think about what might happen if you miss, and you are out of luck.

 

I don’t know how much I believed this during my playing days, but the idea was everywhere. There were certainly times I can still remember where I was afraid of missing a shot, only to miss the shot. I can remember a moment from my senior year, where I was wide open for a three on the left hand side. I knew I was going to shoot the ball before my teammate even passed it to me, and I knew I was going to make the shot. “Shoot it,” he said as he passed it to me – not that I needed any extra incentive – and of course, I swished the shot and nodded my head like I was LeBron James as I ran back down the court.

 

Research from Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow suggests that there really might be something to this shooting mindset. Kahneman writes about a study of college students who were asked to complete a word scramble and then walk down the hall to another room. When students were presented with words associated with the elderly, the average time it took them to get up from their chair and walk down the hallway to the next room was longer than it was for a control group who didn’t have word scrambles related to old people.

 

Kahneman writes, “The idea of old age had not come to their conscious awareness, but their actions had changed nevertheless. This remarkable priming phenomenon – the influencing of an action by the idea – is known as the ideomotor effect.”

 

Simply thinking about old people made people move slower. Thoughts, even thoughts and ideas that people were not directly focused on, changed the way people behaved in the physical world. It is like listening to some pump-up music while pumping iron, but without deliberately setting up the environment to get you in the zone for the physical task. The ideomotor effect represents the connection between our mental state and our physical performance, and it appears that it can be conscious and intentional as well as subconscious and unknown.

 

So while it might seem like a bunch of superstition to believe that visualizing a swish versus fearing a missed basket will influence whether or not you make a shot, the ideomotor effect might actually make it a reality. My coaches probably hadn’t heard of the ideomotor effect or of a study of slow walking college students thinking about old people. Nevertheless, their intuition seems to have been correct, and my thoughts while shooting basketballs in high school may have played a big role in whether I made a shot or missed.

We Create Our Obstacles

Ryan Holiday in his book, The Obstacle is the Way, writes about the power of our perceptions in addressing our challenges, creating change, and becoming successful in our efforts to reach our goals. He explains the ways in which we can change the way we think in order to change our behavior and help us find better approaches to scary situations. In regards to our challenges, he believes everything is a matter of perception and mental framing, “In other words, through our perception of events, we are complicit in the creation — as well as the destruction — of every one of our obstacles.” In this short section what Holiday is explaining is that we have the power to change how we think about and approach our challenges. By mentally determining that our obstacles are not obstacles, we can find ways around, over, and through our barriers.

 

Holiday’s focus on perception is a common theme throughout his book. Borrowed from stoicism, the idea that our mentality and perceptions shape our thoughts help us find philosophical grounds to approach the world in a more constructive manner. He continues in his book to write, “There is no good or bad without us, there is only perception.  There is the event itself and the story we tell ourselves about what it means.” We are not just living in a world where things happen and we have predictable and dependable reactions.
The world of human choice and thought very well may be completely determined by physics, considering that our brains are simply matter like the world around us, and our thoughts are the chemical reactions taking place between the matter, but the way that our complex consciousness exists is so multivariate that it is our perception that ultimately shapes how decisions are made. When we change how we think about a situation, we can literally change the situation. Deciding that something is neither good nor bad, and choosing the reaction that we want to have, the reaction which will serve us and those around us the best, is how we can maximize our time on Earth.  Allowing situations to push us around and determine how we will act is a choice that we can make.

 

We can look at any situation and decide that we have been defeated and that the challenge is too great for us, or we can shift our focus and find new ways to approach our position.  We can decide to make changes, we can find ways to embrace our challenge, or we can alter the way we think and react to our challenges.  All of these options create new avenues for us and provide us with a new story to tell ourselves about our lives. We can overcome our obstacles through patience and thoughtful action, and through the process of overcoming our obstacles new opportunities will emerge.