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The framing problem and judgment– how to be aware of how not to frame

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The framing problem and judgment– how to be aware of how not to frame

4th December 2020

By: Saliem Fakir

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For the human mind to cope with the world, it has to develop a set of frames of the world, or what can also be called heuristics. These sets of frames are not all innate; many are a product of social constructs and cultural transmission. Logical reasoning is an intuitive and innate property of the mind, but the idea of supernatural creatures is a product of the imaginative part of the mind.

The human mind is complex. As work on artificial intelligence (AI) has shown, we still have a long way to go before we can replicate the ingenuity of the human mind, despite the fact that, on some things, AI can do a better job than humans. AI may well beat humans in the cognitive race but AI has not reached the point Stuart Russell makes: “Roughly speaking, an entity is intelligent to the extent that what it does is likely to achieve what it wants, given what it has perceived.”

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Since the mind is the recipient of millions of sensory information, its computational and processing power has to rationalise the world, which is not full of sense from a phenomenological point of view, as the works of philosopher Emmanuel Kant sought to demonstrate. The mind has innate intuitive preframing procedures, as well as innate language capabilities. Something predetermined in the mind is able to pre-perceive, perceive and then turn this into a an idea or concept that enables a cognitive being to turn it into will and action.

The machinery of perception and intelligence is not a perfect instrument and something explored in detail in the book of Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow. The book is about judgment and decision-making. The focus is on the relation between intuition, bias, knowledge and action. Kahneman and his colleague, Amos Tversky, came up with a model of the mind that they called the two-systems model.

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System 1 is instinctive – quick and fast in its judgment calls – while System 2 is slow and reflective, and is always undertaking a mental calculus of the information, before it eventually makes a judgment call. Kahneman does not prefer one system to the other; rather, he argues that System 1 can lead us to flawed judgments because of its rapid mode of making sense of the world.

We are often not aware of frameworks because they are enmeshed with everyday thinking, reasoning and the judgment processes we engage in each day as we go about our daily chores in life. For example, the framing that individualism must have primacy can lead to self-centred social relations that can be at odds with other cultures, privileging the group rather than the individual, whereas essentialist frameworks can lead to extreme views and outcomes that can benefit some individuals more than others, such as our views on race, sexuality or women.

Essentialist frameworks are beliefs we develop as a result of our upbringing.

Scientists also frame the world for which they seek clues by building hypotheses and testing these through observation and experiments. Hypotheses can be intuitive or thought experiments like those that Albert Einstein conjured when he sought to explore the theory of relativity. Einstein bent space and time, entirely as a creative thought, in ways that were unconventional.

Hypotheses are frames that guide our ways into the world as we gather empirical instances that allow patterns and causal relations to be established. Economics is a diverse field and mainstream economics has sought to identify laws of human nature on the premise that we are rational, self-interested and therefore predictable. Heuristic models in economics are constructs. Kwame Appiah draws on the works of Hans Vaihinger, including his seminal essay, As If, to demonstrate the power models of the world hold over our everyday thinking and actions.

Behavioural economics is slowly beginning to dismantle mainstream economic theory – the notion that we are purely rational beings and that we are always able to make calls that are in our best interests does not always hold. Behavioural science at least points out how these systems of reason can be short-circuited, depending on the subjective or psychological state of the individual. Prospect theory is one of the most seminal theories in behavioural science that seeks to describe decision-making under uncertainty and risk.

For example, when a person is given certain choices in a betting scenario, outcomes of bets that are certain would be preferred over outcomes that are uncertain. This is to be expected.

However, this changes when there is an element of personal loss, depending on whether one is risk averse or a risk seeker because your starting point is already in the domain of loss.

Barry Schwartz, in his book, The Paradox of Choice, notes that too many choices can lead to stressful outcomes and so individuals seeking to solve their needs will seek to get out of the situation of stress instead of spending time gathering all the information to influence the best choice. Price signals for goods are not the primary factor in the choice of goods as mimetic impulses, and the status value of a good – seeing what others do – can be a bigger influencing factor in choice.

The point of frameworks is that, while they may help us understand or (un)understand the world, they are not always the sources of best wisdom – knowledge and wisdom are not the same thing, although wisdom can be guided by knowledge. Bayesian equations, for instance, hold precisely this contingency requirement: initial probability estimates are based on what is a possible expected outcome but can be adjusted as expectations need to vary with experience.

Wisdom is the ability not to be stuck in a frame but to see beyond it and this is particularly true for political judgment, as this requires seeing beyond narrow gains and focusing on the actions of today for broader gains tomorrow.

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