US Policy Making: Broad or Narrow Framing?

senate debate
As I’m reading Thinking, Fast and Slow, I came across an idea that seems to pose an interesting question for students of US Congressional policy making. When deciding whether to vote aye or nay on a measure, do they frame the decision narrowly or broadly? As Kahneman describes it, narrow framing is when sequences of simple decisions are considered separately, whereas in broad framing the sequence of decisions is grouped into a single decision with several options. Our minds naturally frame decisions narrowly, and, combined with our natural aversion to losses, this often leads us to turn down slightly risky decisions as they appear to us. When our friend asks if we’ll accept a coin toss where heads gives us $200 and tails makes us lose $100, most of us would not take it because we would feel the loss more steeply. However, if he were to offer us 100 coin flips under the same conditions, we would surely agree to the terms – we intuitively understand that aggregating the risks together reduces our potential losses. Indeed, if we did accept the 100 coin flip gamble, with $200 gained for heads and $100 lost for tails, we would have an expected return of $5,000, with only a 1/2,300 chance of losing any money and merely a 1/62,000 chance of losing more than $1,000. Anyone who refused this bet would be considered insane.

So what does this have to do with our daily lives? Well, it suggests that we shouldn’t frame risks narrowly as isolated one-off risks, but rather as one risk in a series of risks that we are likely to encounter in the future. This works when the risks are relatively small risks with simple options, and they don’t threaten our health or wealth in a way that would make life unbearable. For instance, when you have the opportunity to buy tickets to a concert that you want to see, but you are afraid the cost of the tickets is high and the performance might be disappointing, you should frame the decision in the context of all the other live events you are likely to buy tickets to throughout your life. If you aggregate all these decisions, you can more easily accept a single loss (spending too much money on a mediocre concert) in the knowledge that you will likely experience gains in the future (going to an amazing concert for a lower price than you valued the experience). Thinking this way helps us combat two irrational biases that we are all hard-wired with: our tendency to overweight losses in decisions, and our tendency to display inconsistent preferences because we view each decision in the immediate context in which it is posed to us. Simply by stepping back and framing a decision in terms of long-term considerations, we can make our preferences and decisions more consistent and logical.

Now, apply this type of decision-making framework to voting in Congress. Each vote is a risk where several potential gains and losses are weighed, but which ultimately comes down to a simple choice: vote yay or nay. Consider a Democratic Representative from a swing district in a Southern state with large coal mining companies wants to vote for a law designed to increase water quality by imposing regulations on mountaintop removal coal mining practices (which essentially blast the tops of mountains to get at coal underneath, and can contamiante water supplies with the debris from the blast). They must weigh the potential gains (more votes from left-leaning constituents, more campaign funding from the environmental lobby) against the costs (loss of votes from right-leaning constituents, angering constituent businesses).

How would a Congressperson frame this decision? Would they frame it in isolation with all only its immediately surrounding consequences? Or would they frame it more broadly as one vote they will cast among many that will aggregate together?  I suppose the most obvious answer is that they frame their votes broadly – how else do you describe the phenomenon of political horse trading, where a lawmaker casts a crucial vote on one issue that they otherwise would not have cast in exchange for support on a later vote they prioritize more highly? However, I can very well see a case for narrow framing as well: policy aides and political advisers constantly remind the Representative how each vote will look to constituents back home – in effect, focusing their attention narrowly on the one decision.

I honestly don’t know the answer to this, and frankly some votes may be too complex of decisions to correctly apply broad framing. I claim no expertise in behavioral science; this post is merely a fleshing out of my thoughts as I read through this challenging and delightful book. Still, I think this is an interesting topic and I’m excited to see what insights come as we apply insights from the decision/behavioral sciences to political science.

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