Americans understand arguments over social issues depending on the way they are framed by the media, or government officials. According to Cass Sunstein, author of the book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, framing arguments work because people are mindless and passive in their decision making. By framing arguments in terms controlled within a certain “this or that” paradigm, people are forced to make choices within that paradigm. The parameters of the argument are set for them, controlled by what Sunstein refers to as a choice architect. A perfect example is the development of the Covid 19 vaccine. The argument has shifted in the minds of many Americans from whether we need one to who is going to take the credit for developing and delivering it. Sunstein also claims that framing works as powerful “nudge” of social behavior because people tend to suffer from some cognitive dissonance when faced with contradictions in their thoughts and beliefs, and they don’t know how to deal with these contradictions, so they are more likely to work within the defined borders of the argument. Framing an argument then, works as a form of attitude and/or opinion change, while keeping the issue focused on certain elements that guide society towards a desired end.
Another example of framing an argument can be understood by examining the latest study concerning the effectiveness of facemasks in preventing the spread of Covid 19. To call this the latest study is an understatement. It is the only study that focused on Covid 19. All other studies which focused on the use of facemasks in preventing infection rates were done with the flu. In any case, the study found that there is no statistical difference that went beyond the margin of error in populations that did or did not wear masks. The infection rate was virtually the same. Good news, right? After reading this study public officials are likely to reverse course and lift the unnecessary mask mandates and other ridiculous restrictions they have unconstitutionally placed on their communities, correct? Probably not. What is most likely to happen is these public officials will accept that mask mandates are not stopping the spread and they will increase their restrictions. This is because the issue is being framed from the perspective that it is indeed a deadly pandemic that is occurring despite all the admissions we have recently witnessed from the CDC. Those are completely left out of the equation.
For example, in July the CDC quietly released a document admitting that an isolated sample of the Covid 19 virus does not exist. The FDA also admitted that their test kits were developed under emergency protocol and, the standard that all tests must be confirmed against an isolated and purified form of the virus was dropped. This is referred to as the gold standard. This information is not a part of the argument that is being presented to the public. In fact, it is being hidden from the public because the issue is being framed from the perspective that it is a deadly disease spreading rapidly out of control. Another point being left out is the fact that the CDC also admitted that hospitals had a financial incentive to label all deaths as Covid 19 deaths. In fact, 26, 557 heart attacks were fallaciously labeled as Covid 19 deaths.
If the mainstream media included the above information within the context of the Covid 19 issue, it would be understood in an entirely different way, people would have a different frame of reference. Therefore, the latest mask study will likely have no effect because it is being done from the perspective that masks are not stopping the spread, not from the perspective that Covid 19 has a minuscule death rate of .26 percent among the people that catch it. Arguing from this frame of reference suggests that something must still be done. It is being framed in a manner to keep the fear message going to induce compliance of what ever policies they wish to enact. Like mandatory vaccines for example.
Most people, as Sunstein claims, when presented with the contradictory information do not how to respond to it and, because it is not being presented by the main stream media, it comes across to them as nonsense, something they can not register. Sunstein himself is a Harvard Law Professor who worked in the Obama administration as the head of Information and Regulatory Affairs office. He believes that people are very persuadable if “nudged” in the right direction. This is because he believes that we are not capable of making choices in our best interest and that we live complex lives where “we accept questions as posed rather than trying to determine whether their answers would vary under alternative formulations” (Sunstein & Thaler, 2006, pg. 37). In other words, there is an understanding about human behavior that suggests that people will accept the way an argument is framed because it is too difficult for them to step outside of the parameters and come to any conclusions based on their own cognitive efforts. Social science thinks you are lazy and public officials, based on this so-called understanding, fully expect you to fall in lock step with their objectives based on how they present the argument to you.
When it comes to responding to a fear stimulus, much of what social science knows about human behavior comes from the 1938 radio broadcast The War of the Worlds, by Orson Wells. People reacted to this event as if it were real because they had no frame of reference to compare it to. Hadley Cantril’s book, Invasion from Mars: A Study in the Psychology of Panic explains this event from the lens of behavioral psychologists that immediately began exploiting the opportunity to take advantage of this panicked reaction to a media broadcast.
Such rare occurrences provide opportunities for the social scientist to study mass behavior. They must be exploited when they come. Although the social scientist unfortunately cannot usually predict such situations and have his tools of investigation ready to analyze the phenomenon while it is still on the wing, he can begin his work before the effects of the crisis are over and memories are blurred. The situation created by the broadcast was one which shows us how the common man reacts in a time of stress and strain. It gives us insights into his intelligence, his anxieties, and his needs, which we could never get by tests or strictly experimental studies. The panic situation we have investigated had all the flavor of everyday life and, at the same time, provided a semi-experimental condition for research. In spite of the unique conditions giving rise to this particular panic, the writer has attempted to indicate throughout the study the pattern of the circumstances which, from a psychological point of view, might make this the prototype of any panic. (Cantril, Invasion from Mars: A Study in the Psychology of Panic)
There a couple of observations worth noting that are comparable to today’s panicked reaction to Covid 19. First, it was revealed that people put a lot of faith in the perceived authority of the actors playing media officials. Today’s news programming depicts talking heads posing as authority figures who are in possession of information needed to keep ourselves safe. Second, and perhaps more interesting is the fact that people’s panicked reactions can be, in large part, motivated by stimulus’ their brain has no reference to categorize. In other words, the information they are receiving (stimulus) is so overwhelming to them because they have nothing else from experience to compare it to in order to make a sound judgement on how to react; therefore, panic takes over. As far as Covid 19 is concerned, the fear messaging presenting the issue as a doomsday pandemic has worked wonderfully. People, when in a state of panic are far more likely to go along with the suggestions given to them and less likely to do any real research into the issue themselves. This is something that is understood by the people who may be responsible for framing an argument that is intended to persuade you into compliant behavior you may otherwise not agree with.
The purpose of this article is to educate the reader on what is understood about human behavior and, people’s reactions to media broadcasts. Those reactions are studied and taken advantage of. It is not the intention of this writer to suggest that people are too mindless and passive in their decision making (Sunstein & Thaler, 2006, p. 37), for example. Those are the words and beliefs of people who spend their time trying to figure out how to get you to do, what they want you to do. James Perloff states in The Dynamics of Persuasion: Communications and Attitudes in the 21st Century that communications scholars have pioneered the research in compliance gaining by studying the psychology behind the strategies used to influence behavior, some of which are based on fear. The only way to overcome this is to research all sides of the issue and demand answers where things don’t make sense.