In the 1980s, a novel and important idea about the nature of human thought and consciousness gained currency: the notion that one of the most powerful functions of our minds is to create and evolve models of the world. Once established, these models shape our perception and our purpose. We cleave to these models, and we are prepared to distort reality inside our heads in order not to falsify them.
Daniel Kahneman called this the framing effect, and he saw it as a flaw in human reasoning. He described how students responded very differently to an incentive, depending how it was framed. A registration fee was set low for a time and then increased. When this was presented as a penalty for late registration, 93% of the students registered early. When it was presented as a discount for early registration, only 67% did so.
Many of the models – or frames – that we use are illusory, or at best tendentious. Yuval Harari has pointed out that our species’ superpower is not rational thought, as many of us like to think. It is instead our ability to collectively agree to believe in fictions, like money, monarchy, religions, and democracy. Shared belief creates a community of purpose, and our ability to collaborate in complex and sophisticated ways is what transformed us, around 70,000 years ago, from a puny primate into the planet’s apex predator.
Economist journalist Kenn Cukier and Oxford academic Viktor Mayer-Schonberger wrote a seminal book in 2013 called Big Data. Their timing was perfect, as people were coming to realise how important data was to the science of artificial intelligence, which was about to burst into public consciousness with a tsunami of photographs of the Terminator. Now they have teamed up with Francis de Vericourt to repeat the trick with a book called Framers, about how our mental models dictate our attitudes and our outcomes.
Why frames are powerful
The book is stuffed full of examples of how some frames are more effective than others, and how amending a frame, or adopting a new one, can lead to scientific, economic, and emotional breakthroughs. This is true on a national level – indeed a global one – as much as on an individual level.
Likewise, for most of human history, Europe was a relative backwater, while Asia, and especially China, was more advanced scientifically and economically. But in the late middle ages, a unified China turned inward, while a fragmented Europe looked outward in the Age of Exploration. Its relatively small states jostled and competed for advantage, and their rivalry prompted them to adopt and adapt their mental models to great effect.
Cukier and his co-authors have a more ambitious project than Kahneman and Harari. They don’t want to just point out how powerfully we are influenced by our perspectives and prejudices – our frames. They want to show us that these frames are tools, and that we can optimise their use. And we can change them when they become obsolete or misleading.
To use our existing frames well, they argue that we need to apply causality, counterfactuals, and constraints. They give many examples of how to do this. But sometimes we need to ditch a frame and replace it, either with an existing one from our repertoire, or – rarely, and with caution – with a whole new one. This is different from thinking outside the box, a phrase whose origins lie in a business psychology experiment called the nine-dot test, which is illustrated on the book’s cover. The authors reject this idea, as we are always inside a box.
The book has a felicity of phrasing, with numerous nostrums concisely couched, such as “explaining the world to others leads to understanding it better oneself,” “much of life is revising what we thought we knew but really didn’t”, and “[following the agricultural revolution, our ancestors] had become not only farmers, but framers.”
However, it’s not entirely clear that the examples the authors give for the various elements of their advice apply specifically to the idea they are supposed to illustrate. For instance, is Jeff Bezos’ adoption of a business model without profit an example of an old frame being adapted, or a new frame being selected?
The authors anticipate opposition to their recommendations: “two groups reject the power of framing: the emotionalists and the hyper-rationalists.” Emotionalists deny the need for evidence, scientific experimentation, and rational analysis. They think that gut feeling will provide better solutions, and faster. The prime example is populist politicians, who claim that a metropolitan elite (which, ironically, they are almost always members of) have stolen the people’s birthright, and only they, the populist, can restore the glory days of yore. As the authors say, “this ethos cannot solve problems – it can only glorify them. It can tear down but not construct.”
The other opponents, apparently, “aspire to replace imperfect human framing with the rational power of data and algorithms.” They can’t wait for AIs to take over pretty much all decision-making. This is an Aunt Sally, and comes laced with a trendy dismissal of the potential of AI to improve our world. For techno-optimists, the point of AI is not to diminish humans but to liberate them: to automate activities which steal time away from humans – time which would be better spent creating, imagining, and playing.
Hold two opposing ideas in mind
But the authors are surely right when they say the most dangerous form of framing is the one which denies that any alternative view is acceptable. Terrorists are meticulous framers, and so are dictators. We must be vigilant, and resist their demands to suppress any frames which cast doubt on their own. A key skill which all humans should cultivate is the ability to “hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time”.
And as the authors say, “societal institutions and processes can’t do the cognitive heavy-lifting for us. Agility of mind is a project for all of us, individually.”