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Politics: It’s not what you say but how you put it

OPINION
By Edwin Wanjawa | October 8th 2021

ODM supporters at a campaign rally in Homabay County [Denish Ochieng, Standard]

The 2022 elections are almost a year ahead, but the electioneering is up and about. Politicians are holding a bevy of activities to influence voting behavior.

Being neither too clever nor too stupid, they are aware of how much our reasoning can be influenced by how information is framed.

In the social sciences, framing comprises a set of concepts and theoretical perspectives on how individuals, groups, and societies organise, perceive, and communicate about reality.

Cognitive scientist George Lakoff, in his book Don’t think of an elephant, shows how framing influences reasoning, or how the way we say something often matters much more than what we say.

The title conveys one of its main insights: If you negate a frame, you strengthen a frame. In other words, if you say “don’t think of an elephant,” you cannot help but think of one.

Kenyans should be worried that they may be constantly thinking of elephants as they gear up for the 2022 elections.

Politicians’ constant repeating of things like “bottom-up”, “dynasty”, “hustler” “corruption”, “thief” according to Lakoff, is strengthening a particular frame, subconsciously causing us to view other politicians and or issues in that way.

Deputy President William Ruto’s team is constantly reinforcing their bottom-up and dynasty-hustler narrative.

Their opponents fall in their trap when they respond to these claims, thereby giving the public more chances to “think of an elephant.”

Be it as it may, framing does play a role in our reasoning and everyday lives. Recent psychological research shows us just how powerful framing can be, and how consistently unaware we are of its effects.

Research in framing spearheaded by Nobel Prize Winner Daniel Kahneman and his collaborator Amos Tversky in the 1980s, upended the assumption that humans behave rationally – an assumption that a number of economic models previously rested on.

They instead showed that we are often consistently irrational, relying on a number of mental shortcuts to speed up our reasoning, which can make us remarkably sensitive to how things are framed.

But, just how strong is the impact of framing? Recent studies show that, in some contexts, it might have an even stronger effect on our reasoning than our own political views. In one of the studies, participants were presented with brief passages about crime in a hypothetical city.

For half of the participants, a few words were altered so that the passage said that crime was a “beast preying” on the city. For the other half, crime was described as a “virus infecting” the city.

Simply changing the metaphor by altering a few words influenced people’s beliefs about crime. Those exposed to the “beast” metaphor were more likely to believe that crime should be dealt with by using punitive measures, whereas those exposed to the “virus” metaphor were more likely to support reformative measures.

One of the most remarkable things about the metaphor’s influence in this study was that it was covert.

When participants were asked about what influenced their decision, no one mentioned the metaphor.

They instead pointed to other aspects of the passage that were the same for all participants, such as statistics. This means that many times we are unaware of the influence of framing on our trains of thought and decision making processes. Why is it so hard to convince someone of the opposite political persuasion as you? Research on framing shows that people tend to frame political arguments in terms of their own values, but when arguing across party lines, it is much more effective to frame your argument in terms of your opponent’s values. Dr Ruto is adept at this, when addressing church congregations, he clothes his bottom-up narrative in biblical garb.

Kenyans should be on the lookout for framing in politics, as we hurtle towards 2022 elections.

The body of research on the topic suggests that our choice of who to vote for may be influenced by its powerful effects.

Moreover, this research has profound implications for how we view the mind. We often metaphorically frame the mind as a machine, saying that it is “wired” to behave in certain ways.

But, the mind is not simply a machine, engineered to behave entirely rationally. Instead, like a work of art, the mind thrives on metaphor, narrative, and emotion – which can sometimes overtake our rationality.

And like the mind, a work of art can be influenced by the choice of frame. But, knowing about the effects of a frame can allow us to look past the frame, assess how it may be influencing us, or choose a different frame that will make the artwork shine.

 

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