Check out The Impact of the Irrelevant on Decision Making in today’s New York Times. It’s not just another article about the surprising power of anchoring and framing. It suggests that “framing a discussion” is so powerful that it is “an ethically significant act.”
As economics Professor Robert Frank notes:
even conservative political commentators have begun to point out [that] Republicans have lately been far more aggressive in stretching [framing’s] traditional boundaries. When Sarah Palin said that if health care reform legislation were adopted, her parents and her child with Down syndrome “will have to stand in front of Obama’s ‘death panel’ so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their ‘level of productivity in society,’ whether they are worthy of health care,” most people probably realized the president had made no such proposal. Her statement nonetheless shifted the terms of the debate, making it harder for legislators to focus on genuinely relevant issues.
Is there any cure? Can’t we simply raise our level of discourse to include critical analysis? Yes, answers Frank, but only if social sanctions are attached.
Economists have long recognized that social sanctions are often an effective alternative to legal and regulatory remedies. As Adam Smith argued, moral sentiments are extremely powerful drivers of human behavior. People who know they’ll be ridiculed for telling untruths are more likely to show restraint.
Some social sanctions are less effective than others. In recent years, the most conspicuous public falsehoods have been ridiculed by independent bloggers and Comedy Central’s faux news hosts. But television and Internet audiences are highly segmented. Many of Jon Stewart’s targets may never hear his riffs about them, or may even view them as badges of honor.
That’s why it’s important for the circle of critics to widen — and why we need to remember that framing a discussion appropriately is “an ethically significant act.”
Go forth, fellow lawyers, mediators and negotiators. Anchor and reframe, but do so ethically!
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