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Framing, provocation, and truth

It all depends on how you ask the question…
Peter Kellner, Chairman of YouGov, asks the great British Public whether or not they are in favour of bringing back Grammar Schools, and finds that they’re not… AND that they might be. It all depends on how you ask the question…

I enjoy reading Kellner’s articles because he is always completely unafraid to declare and experiment with framing effects and freely admits that the difference in captured opinion is entirely due to question wording. The differences in this case are appreciable, as you can see by reading his short article: http://goo.gl/bZ5RB9.

For another superb example of the effects, again from Kellner, see this piece showing results of research into whether the BBC license fee is thought to represent value for money – when asked in no less than nine subtly different ways: http://goo.gl/QTfXs8

Framing has made a comeback in recent years by virtue of being a basic tenet of the Choice Architecture branch of behavioural economics, as popularized by Thaler & Sunstein in Nudge (and by many others thereafter). Researchers who started their careers some time before all that were also educated in framing effects, but as I recall it was all about trying to be neutral not leading, and trying to be fair to all the options, rather than risk highlighting some elements above others.

What has changed recently I think is that we are now encouraging each other to use framing and priming effects more provocatively and pro-actively to capture the effect, and then – hopefully – contrast it with a juxtaposed alternative. 
Personally I’m all in favour but it is a hard habit for fair-minded researchers to break!What makes it more troublesome for me is another clarion call of the behavioural movement, one that jars with the above effects in my view – a focus on uncovering truth. It seems to be a word creeping steadily into the promotional lexicon of marketing research. I see it in conference papers, websites, flyers, blogs, twitter… Whatever the reason for that I’m pretty sure it is long-term trending! (personally I tend to think two important influences are our boredom with the word “insight” and the promise held out by big / behavioural data in terms of uncovering the truth of what people actually do)

But are we in danger of tying ourselves in knots here? How can we ask the same question in two or more legitimate ways, produce significantly divergent answers, and still claim a single truth? Add to that the different ‘truths’ now being produced by non-conscious research techniques such as implicit association versus comparable deliberative / traditional approaches.

We know enough about this now I think to suggest that implicit and explicit responses do not often converge to a single point of truth. Rather they, arguably, point to several truths – what we believe when we don’t have time to think, versus what we claim when we do. I think both are essential to understanding.If researchers dare call anything the truth then perhaps it should be the outcome of our interpretation of results taken from one or more deliberately juxtaposed positions.

That is,

e.g. Q1 (Frame 1) results vs Q1 (Frame 2) results – discuss,
e.g. Non-conscious / emotional / implicit / System 1 results vs Conscious / deliberative / explicit / System 2 results –discuss.

15th April 2015

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