What leaders say is important. How they say it also matters.

David Moscrop on the psychology of political framing and priming


With his Psychology of Politics series, David Moscrop has been providing lessons on how our minds work and how our political landscape takes full advantage of it. Today’s lesson: When it comes to debates, the way an argument is made has a significant impact how convincing it is. Underlying this fact are two psychological effects known as “framing” and “priming.”

Anyone who’s ever been in a fight with their romantic partner or in an argument on Twitter can tell you that the importance of what you say can be quickly displaced by the way that you say it. And to make matters even trickier, the context surrounding what you say and how you say it can influence how your message is received—or not received.

Communication is tricky business, and the psychological phenomena of framing and priming partly explain why. In the case of a national, live federal leaders debate during an election, the tricky business becomes high-wire art, with each leader trying to convince Canadians of why they ought to support his or her party while simultaneously trying to denigrate the other leaders and avoid alienating potential supporters.

In this piece, I’ll take a look at the psychological effects of framing and priming in the context of Thursday’s Globe and Mail debate on the economy and give you a brief guide on what to look for as the leaders position themselves with just over a month to go before election day.

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Framing: A rose by any other name might be a thistle

Do you want to know what keeps me up at night? Well, it’s the vastness of our dark, unknown universe and the precarious place of our species within the natural order. But when I finally stop thinking about all that, it’s the framing effect. The sneaky and potentially decisive (or devastating) framing effect.

Framing simply refers to how someone presents information: the words they use to discuss an issue, the comparisons they make between one thing and another, whether they use numbers or stories or metaphors to explain something, and so forth. Think of framing as presentation. Better yet, think of framing as plating—how our food is served to us. The same meal looks and feels and even tastes very different served on a clean, white plate with a dribble of sauce across it than it does smashed into a matte-brown takeaway container.

The psychologist and economist Daniel Kahneman did pioneering work on framing along with his research partner, the late Amos Tversky. In Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow, he illustrates framing with an example of physicians choosing whether or not to recommend surgery or radiation treatment for patients suffering from lung cancer.

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In this case surgery was, in general, the more effective treatment. In an experiment Tversky and his colleagues carried out, they presented subjects with two different frames about the surgery: “The one-month survival rate is 90%” and “There is 10% mortality in the first month.” Same difference. But 84 per cent of doctors said yes to surgery when given the first frame, while only 50 per cent chose it when they were exposed to the second frame. So, framing matters.

In the context of a political debate, framing is awfully important, too. Is a downward change in the income tax rate for individuals a “tax cut”? Or is it “tax relief?” How about the environment? Is humankind facing the threat of “climate change” or “global warming”? Each frame comes with different meanings and evokes different expectations and emotions. The way each is discussed—even if the facts remain the same—changes how we hear and interpret that information. Subtle (or not so subtle) differences in how information is packaged can have profound implications for how it is received.

Priming: Let’s get ready to…

This debate is about the economy. “The economy” is about as broad a target as you can get. It intersects with just about every issue you can imagine: health care, education, taxes, employment, trade, the military, the environment, social justice, and onwards into the infinite of the aforementioned dark and unknown universe. You might expect that it doesn’t matter in which order you talk about any of these economy-related issues, but it does.

This brings us to the psychological phenomenon of priming. While framing is about how a particular bit of information is presented, priming refers to how other information or stimuli affect how we receive that information. Priming sets the context in which information is received and includes how often an issue is discussed, and in what order compared to other issues. Stay with me while I give an example.

Say the leaders are talking about the economy, and one frames his tax agenda as “tax relief for hard-working taxpayers.” That’s a frame. He could have said “tax cuts for Canadians” or just “tax cuts for individuals,” but the “relief” and “hard working” and “taxpayers” frames cue different emotions and considerations: fairness, entitlement, individual rights, self-reliance, in-groups (i.e. taxpayers) versus out-groups (i.e. non-taxpayers).

Now, if this discussion of taxation immediately precedes a discussion about, say, climate change and what to do about a carbon tax, then it’s going to prime listeners in a way that is likely to make many individuals unreceptive to arguments about the need to introduce new taxes. They’ll be thinking about individuals and about lower taxes—not a collective action problem.

If, however, climate change is discussed as part of or just after an exchange about protecting and stabilizing the Canadian economy through innovation and diversification (i.e. moving away from older forms of resource extraction and towards new technologies and industries), then things will be different. Individuals will be primed to think about climate change as an economic and security issue and will be primed to evaluate the idea of a carbon tax very differently.

The debate on the economy: what to watch for

To (over)simplify things a bit: framing is about the story that’s being told while priming is about the context in which it’s being told.

The leaders will try to explain their proposed economic policies. Deficits and surpluses will be featured concerns, for sure. Are the Harper Conservatives “misers”? Are the Trudeau Liberals on a “tax and spend” binge? Does Thomas Mulcair’s NDP want to “overburden” corporations?

It will also matter whether a critical mass of Canadians believe that increases infrastructure spending—recently a hot topic—is a necessary investment or a waste of money that will put the country into deficit territory. Watch for that word “investment.” It’s a powerful frame.

Tax credits! Tax credits! Come and get your tax credits! Here’s where framing and priming get particularly interesting. This election has seen more micro-targeting than any election I’ve ever studied or lived through. The technology and methods for micro-targeting are better than ever, so it’s no surprise.

Craft beer. Home renovations. School supplies for teachers. Netflix (this wasn’t a tax credit, but a promise not to introduce a tax). Each leader will be looking to say something about how their particular boutique tax promises will help “X group of Canadians do Y.” The content of the Xs and Ys are important, since they reveal how each leader wants particular segments of the population to think of their party: concerned about hard-working small business people, looking to give a break to young entrepreneurial Canadians, protecting slackers from the overwhelming burden of a few extra pennies a year for their streaming binges.

Climate change—despite the absence of Green Party leader Elizabeth May on the stage—might also make an appearance, and probably under the guise of a discussion of a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system. How this issue is framed and when it is discussed—how viewers are primed to hear it—will matter. This is especially true if the issue is discussed alongside resource extraction in general or pipelines in particular.

There will be plenty more to watch for. But now that you have framing and priming in mind—dare I say, now that you’re primed to think about them—you’ll be set to catch the subtle maneuvers of the leaders on Thursday and adjust your judgments accordingly.

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