By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:
Earlier this week at a mock trial, I witnessed a face-off between two jurors with very different views about the same insurance case: "The company wasn't fair," cried one, "to this day they haven't stepped up to do the right thing." But the other juror was unmoved: "The policy is what it is, there's no benefit to them going beyond it." It is tempting to see this as an exchange between two types of people. But more accurately, it is a conflict between people who happen to apply two different frames around the situation. The first juror is applying a moral frame, looking through the perspective of fairness and right versus wrong. The second juror is just looking at the pragmatics of the situation, and what the policy calls for quite independent of what is good or bad. While you might think the die is cast on which type of discussion will prevail as of jury selection, much depends on the message they hear in trial.
The critical lesson is this: Frames can change, even within a single individual. Based on a recent study (Van Bavel et al., 2012), people appear to be very malleable and able to selectively apply either a pragmatic or a moral frame, and are able to rapidly switch between the two, even when evaluating the same or similar activities. To determine how the frame of evaluation impacts the way participants viewed the same stimuli, the researchers presented a number of concepts (e.g., murder, honesty, eating, or riding a bike), and asked for ratings on the moral grounds of whether they are right or wrong, or on the pragmatic grounds of whether they are personally beneficial or harmful. The team found not only that participants were able to easily switch between the different frames for all kinds of activities. They also found that the choice of frame matters: Moral judgments tended to be quicker, more extreme, and more universalized in the sense of applying to everyone. So the choice of frame matters, and if it is changeable, then the promotion of a particular frame is a key part of the message.