Framing – And Why The Polls Tell Us Nothing

Posted: October 13, 2013 in Politics, society, Uncategorized
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Framing in the social sciences refers to a set of concepts and theoretical perspectives on how individuals, groups, and societies organize, perceive, and communicate about reality.  


When you get asked a question, do ever consider how it’s been framed?

If you’re watching one of the tabloid current affairs programs, for example, you may be asked to participate in a poll. Obvious, to most of us, is the fact that the previous story will have affected your terms of reference for that poll. A story about a person committing a violent crime while on parole is likely to lead to a higher figure for the “get tough on crime” options than if the previous story had been about an effective prison drug rehabilitation program.

This is why the Coaltion continually used the phrase “putting it on the credit card” when refering to any of the previous Government spending initiatives. It frames the listener’s attitude to the debt. If Hockey had said that we couldn’t go “extending the mortgage” to pay for things, then there would have still been a negative association, but it wouldn’t have sounded as bad. When the Abbott Government increases our debt above the “disastrous” $300 billion that Labor borrowed, I suspect that no-one on their side of politics will say: “We can pay for some things but for everything else, there’s Mastercard “.

When it comes to the human psyche, the work of  Daniel Kahneman* and Amos Tversky should be of particular interest to politicians. To what extent, political parties are deliberately using their studies, and to what extent the political process is dominated by focus groups, polling and media advisers, I don’t know, but there is an enormous potential for using things such as “framing” for effectively changing the way a political party is perceived by the electorate. The whole asylum seeker debate, for example, is of no importance to most people in Australia, yet it was framed in such a way that it became a hot button election issue. If you’ve just been shocked by my assertion that asylum seeker debate is of no importance, then I suggest that the “framing” has worked extremely well. Were it not for the reporting of boats, most people wouldn’t know that it was even happening. People wouldn’t be able to distinguish between “boat people”, other refugees and people coming here as part of the immigration program. Yet “protecting our borders” was seen as extremely important by a large number of people, as was Australia’s “lack of compassion” for others. Now that the flow of information has been slowed, we don’t have the same level of hysteria about the invading armada  from Indonesia. Has the flow of boats decreased significantly? Is anyone in the MSM reporting the number of arrivals any more?

(In fact, another good example of framing is an article by a columnist where he used a crime committed by a Sudanese refugee – and some dodgy statistics about his community – to argue why it was important to “stop the boats” and the “queue jumpers”. I suspect that most people wouldn’t stop to consider that these particular refugees DIDN’T come by boat – they were the non-“queue jumping” genuine refugees!)

Tversky and Kahneman’s work challenges the Economic Rationalist theory that people behave logically and do what’s in their best interest. Their studies in the field of behavioural economics have three main themes:

  • People frequently make economic decisions based on a vague idea and rather than logically thinking about them.
  • How things are framed, which is often based on things such as stories and stereotypes
  • The Market itself and its ineffeciencies.

To put it simply, when you see the headlines, “Housing Prices to Boom” and “Housing Bubble Risk”, do you put off buying your first home or investment property or do you think that you better get in quickly? Strangely, people warning about the dangers, may itself contribute to the boom.

Likewise, a decision by the Reserve Bank to cut interest rates to stimulate demand because it’s “worried about a looming recession” may make business owners concerned about their profits falling or workers about losing their job. Then, rather than spend, they try to put money away for the future.

When it comes to politics, the Coalition have largely managed to frame the economic agenda on their own terms. “We had a surplus, Labor has deficits” and “We had money in the bank, Labor has debt”. The existence of the GFC is acknowledged, then ignored. It’s been rare that anyone has ever questioned whether Hockey was arguing that there’d be no debt if they were still in charge, or even – in a time when the economy is “struggling” – whether they considern it a good idea to run surpluses sucking further funds out of the system.  Indeed, it’s interesting how they’ve been able to argue that the Carbon Tax is terrible because it takes money off us, while simultaneously asserting that running a surplus budget where you take more in taxes than you give back in services is always a desirable thing.

Perhaps, the most obvious argument against using  the politics of using polling as a way of determining a course action is when you look at the number of areas where the Labor Party’s policies were prefered by the electorate. Education the NDIS, and Gay Marriage were all pluses for Labor, and yet many people still decided against voting for them, in spite of not agreeing with the Opposition on most issues. Labor, they felt, was moving from one disaster to another. When pressed, the issues were either years ago or just part of the normal chaos of government such as when the states disagree with what the federal government intends.

The challenge for the progressive side of politics over the next three years will be to ensure that debate is framed in their terms – that means holding Abbott accountable for his promises and ensuring that important social issues don’t disappear of the agenda entirely.

*(Writer of “Thinking Fast and Slow”)

Interesting short interview with Daniel Kahneman.

  1. diannaart says:

    Love this piece of analysis. Have been reading some of Sam Harris who has been questioning the entire concept of free-will – although that veers into some very difficult areas of the human psyche.

    Back to article, we wouldn’t have advertising if it didn’t work. Advertising execs study psychology very closely – much money is made from such studies. Why should we be surprised if the political machine uses the same tactics, the same methods such as ‘framing’, to capture a desired result?

    The challenge for Labor and the progressive side of politics will be to keep the focus on everything the LNP does, at the same time offer a real alternative to the LNP. Labor appeared too duplicitous by offering inspirational policies such as NBN and NDIS, while following the callous LNP path towards refugees and an unstructured approach to climate change. Now we have no climate change progress at all (see how I framed that?) and a wall of silence regarding refugees, a wall that is being extended to keep the public ignorant.

    We can see how the manipulation of public sentiments work – therefore, we can defeat this neo-con abuse of our democracy.

  2. Yes, I was tempted to use the example of how the media linked the asbestos being discovered to the NBN, but I decided that I already had enough examples. There’s been asbestos there for years, but because it’s dug up now we can blame the NBN. Rather like discovering a body and implying that if you hadn’t been getting your plumbing done this murder would have never happened.

    • DeanyZ1 says:

      And the home insulation (pink Batts) so-called scandal. Workers died because of the employer’s OH&S standards (none) – rather than the good scheme initiated by Labor. The only fault in the scheme, was handing a blank cheque to any operator who could work a scam.

      • Paul says:

        Spot on. I feel terrible for any family that loses a loved one in an industrial incident, but felt the reaction of the family of one of the victims towards Kevin Rudd was a bit much. Rudd didn’t get in the roofs and tell people to stick metal staples in power cables. The scheme was an otherwise resounding success.

      • DeanyZ1 says:

        Paul, at the time I was a bit busy to take in much of the issue. In retrospect, the people of Australia have been manipulated psychologically for years by big interests who have successfully taken control of MSM and Shock Jocks and therefore control most people’s psyche to vote for their preferred token government to advance their own interests – not those of the people.
        I am beginning to realise the extent to which these ‘big interests’ have been quietly working to achieve their own dubious goal. What is that goal?
        Could I venture the opinion that it might be World Domination by Corporatisation?

  3. Fed up says:

    I know of people who have being digging up those asbestos pits for a decade or more. Getting paid the same, for most of the time. In fact, they work in the western suburbs of Sydney. Not

    No one knows the number by the way. No one knows the state of the copper.

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