It ain’t what you say, it’s the way that you say it

(featured image credit: Ron Cogswell CC BY)

Can we communicate and not manipulate?

I first encountered behavioural science many decades ago – long before I discovered Kahneman, Thaler, Ariely and co. Moreover, it was not even in an academic paper, but in a book by a humourist named Samuel Clemens, better known under his nom-de-plume of Mark Twain.

In The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, he describes how the main character, having been caught playing truant, is told he must whitewash his aunt’s fence the next Saturday as punishment. He has not long been doing so, when one of his mates, Ben, approaches, taunting Tom for having to work while he can go swimming. Tom, however, takes no notice and proceeds to give all his attention to the fence, closely inspecting the result and adding a touch here and there. Ben keeps on mocking, but Tom points out that whitewashing a fence is a special thing, not something you get the chance to do every day.

Before long, the other boy asks whether he can do a bit of whitewashing, but Tom will have none of it. His aunt is very particular and expects top quality work, definitely not something anyone could do. Eventually Ben offers his apple if he can whitewash just a small bit of the fence, and Tom relents. Soon others arrive – “they came to jeer, but remained to whitewash”. With every one, Tom plays a variant of the same trick: presenting the chore as a huge, special privilege, and by mid-afternoon, the fence is looking like new, and he has accumulated untold wealth. That is expert-level framing.

Now, the amusing side of the story aside, one could question the ethics of the loveable rogue kid’s actions. He may technically not be misrepresenting the situation, and simply allow his unwitting subcontractors to form an inaccurate picture without correcting them, but entirely kosher it isn’t.

Everybody’s framing

Yet not all framing is suspect in this way. We frame things whenever we open our mouth, or put pen to paper or finger to keyboard. Pretty much every choice we can make, every situation we can find ourselves in, has positive and negative features. But we rarely exhaustively consider all of them – we tend to focus on a self-serving subset, on either side.

Say, for some reason, you will move to another country, and you need to discuss with your significant other where you will live. The city is busy round the clock, with traffic noise and exhaust fumes… and has everything, from work and shops to leisure opportunities, all within easy reach without even needing to drive. The countryside has peace and quiet all round, footpaths through fields and woodlands and along rivers and lakes… and all but the most basic amenities at least a five-mile drive, plus a 90-minute commute to work. The suburbs offer the best of both worlds… or the worst.

forgotten house

Superb tranquillity, or the middle of nowhere? (image: Henry Hemming CC BY)

If you have a preference for one option, but you know your partner has another one, how will you present your suggestion? Will you do it straight – like an economist: on the one hand this, and on the other hand that? Or will you be tempted to emphasize the positive aspects of your choice that you know your other half would appreciate?

You could say that deliberately concealing information that might lead to the rejection of your preference would be manipulative. But most people do know that cities tend to be hectic, and that the countryside is generally remote. Does that make framing your preferred choice in the best possible light, and downplaying (or not specifically mentioning) the downsides permissible advocacy, or plain dishonesty? The dividing line is not all that clear.

Often there is not even a hint of concealment, and it is really just a matter of perspective – like the proverbial glass that is half full or half empty, or like the father saying (a bit unoriginally) that he is not losing a daughter, but gaining a son on the occasion of her wedding. Rory Sutherland, advertising man and possessor of extensive behavioural insight, refers to clever framing by a pilot, when announcing to the passengers that the plane will not be parked at an air bridge and that they will need to be bussed to the terminal. (This is generally greatly appreciated by travellers.) “I have bad news and good news”, the pilot says. “The bad news is that we haven’t been able to get an air bridge, but the good news is that the bus will take you straight to passport control, so you won’t have far to walk.” And, with two heavy bags to carry, Rory suddenly felt grateful for the bus transfer, along with, no doubt, most of his fellow passengers – the pilot was a genius.

No malice

There is nothing remotely malicious in the framing of any of these situations. Even so, especially when numbers are involved, we seem not to be so comfortable with some instances of framing.

half full

Half full, half empty? (image: Manu Schwendener)

Imagine your consultant tells you that you need to undergo an operation. You ask about the risks involved and she tells you that it has 95% chance of success – or alternatively that 5 out of every 100 operations fail. Will you feel equally relaxed about going ahead in both situations? If not (which will be the case for many people), which would be the right way of putting it, and why?

When we see shops discounting their wares, we may be suspicious (and perhaps not without reason) about the original price. A so-called Recommended Retail Price may well be a fictitious amount that nobody ever pays. A discount based on that reference may well be completely bogus. But what if it is genuine, and a product that was indeed sold for, say, £49.99 for several months, is now offered at £30 – is that fair? An entirely legitimate alternative framing would be the reverse: the real price for the product is actually £30, and it has been sold at a huge mark-up all this time. How can we tell whether that is not actually the case?

Perhaps we are happy to accept the conventional framing, as it fits the plausible narrative that end-of-season stock must be discounted to make sure it sells. But strictly speaking, there is no reason why that would be the only valid interpretation.

With peak and off-peak pricing for transportation or holidays, however, many people are not inclined to accept the operators’ framing. This piece was inspired by a tweet from my friend Greg Davies, accusing the Scottish railway company Scotrail of “Sludge framing” in response to a passenger complaint – i.e. of nudging in bad faith. Here is the original (which, going by the likes and retweets, has struck a chord):


The customer sees a “price hike” at peak times, the operator sees it as a discount at quiet times. Is one more right than the other? The same economic logic as with end-of-season sales applies: without a discount, there would be no sales, and no revenue. But is the passenger wrong? Who can tell…

No such confusion in a joke shared by my friend David Perrott, earlier this week:

prayer joke

Even in the absence of any deliberate concealment of misrepresentation, it is almost impossible to communicate without any implied framing one way or another.

How you say it really does matter.



About koenfucius

Wisdom or koenfusion? Maybe the difference is not that big.
This entry was posted in Behavioural economics, Cognitive biases and fallacies, Ethics, Morality, Psychology and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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