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Reframing and other “small miracles” for development

Allison Demeritt's picture
In a famous psychological experiment, subjects are shown a basketball video, about a minute long, and are asked to count the number of passes made by the team wearing white. Thirty seconds into the video, a woman in a black gorilla suit enters stage right, walks to the middle of the screen, pounds her chest, and then exits stage left. How many of the viewers noticed the gorilla? It’s tempting to predict that all of them did. But in fact less than 50% of video-watchers report seeing the gorilla (Simons and Chabris 1999). How do such oversights happen? And can the experiment tell us something about development?  
Selective attention test

The “invisible gorillas in our midst” experiment shows that we often have a very limited picture of the world around us. Humans do not have infinite observational, perceptual, or processing powers. The result is that we can fail to comprehend things that are happening right in front of us. The gorilla experiment is a concrete demonstration of perceptual ‘blindness,’ in which people fail to see things that occur in their field of vision. But our limited powers of perception apply not only to real objects in front of our eyes. They apply also to the range of meanings we are able to perceive in a given situation and to our ability to imagine behaviors different from those we are used to. The result is that small interventions that alter how we ‘see’ the world and our place in it can have surprisingly large impacts on behavior.  Our recent paper helps explain such “small miracles,” to quote a phrase from a New York Times review of the World Development Report 2015 (Brooks 2014).

How do the interventions work? Our limited abilities of perception, understanding, and imagination lead us to rely on mental frames as we interact with the world. Frames focus our attention on some things but divert it from others; in the experiment above, asking subjects to count the passes among players wearing white diverted their attention from the dark-colored primate strutting through the scene. Although some frames develop through our personal experiences, many are a part of the cultural fabric of society and therefore are shared among members of a population. Shared cultural frames - and the social interactions that reinforce them – shape cognition, as sociologists have emphasized (DiMaggio 1997). The frames can lead groups to hold onto old behaviors that undermine development by preventing us from seeing the value of alternative social arrangements that would make the individual and the group better off.  Reframing is a means of refocusing attention to help people understand their situation in new ways and see alternative courses of action.

A simple development example comes from seaweed farming. To grow seaweed, farmers cut seedling pods from previously harvested seaweed and string them along lines submerged in the ocean. In Indonesia, farmers paid close attention to crop factors such as the length and spacing of their lines and the distance between pods. However, most had not recognized a role for a key dimension: the size of seedling pods used (Hanna et al. 2014). Researchers invited farmers to participate in a field experiment conducted on farmers’ own plots to see if this would help them ‘see’ the relationship between pod size and yield. Enumerators varied the production methods across ten lines, with farmers present for the planting and helping with the weighing, harvesting, and recording of results.  Yet simply having the raw information in the fields in front of them did not lead farmers to change their behavior. It wasn’t until researchers presented summary data that highlighted the link between pod size and yield that farmers noticed it and changed their planting strategies. A limited mental model of seaweed farming kept farmers from seeing a useful pattern in the data until it was explicitly pointed out.

The seaweed experiment suggests that experience, while useful, also has costs: seaweed farmers’ years of experience may have helped them optimize some inputs, but created blinders regarding others. The general lesson is that experience doing things one way creates a mental frame that can prevent us from recognizing the benefits of doing things in a different, more effective way.

Frames shape not only how we see the world, but also how we see ourselves. To examine what happens when a student is framed with a negative social identity, researchers asked black and white students in a U.S. school to take a test (Steele and Aronson 1995). One group was asked to check a box identifying their race before they began the test questions, the other was not. What happened? Black students who recorded their race performed substantially worse than the black students who did not. White students were unaffected by the experimental manipulation. The results suggest that simply priming the frame of ‘black student’ and its associated negative stereotype in the minds of black students was sufficient to harm their performance. Equally remarkable is an intervention that helps close race-based achievement gaps. Black students who participated over the course of a year in a few 15-minute ‘self-affirmation’ exercises, in which they wrote about a personal value or skill, had higher GPAs two years after the intervention ended than students who did not ‘reframe’ themselves in this manner (Cohen et al. 2009). Arguably, culture occludes black students’ vision of themselves; the experience of living in a society that expects them to perform poorly may dissuade them from adopting the effort and perseverance needed to achieve higher GPAs.

Can mental frames contribute to the persistence of outdated institutions? And might ‘reframing’ help societies move towards new institutional arrangements? Quite possibly. Consider the issue of gender equality in government representation, which is a problem the world over. Since 1998, one-third of village council leader positions in the Indian state of West Bengal have been randomly reserved for women. An analysis of villagers’ attitudes showed that two terms of mandated exposure to female leaders mitigated voter discrimination against women (Beaman et al. 2009). After one term of exposure, male villagers in reserved villages rated their leaders (women) significantly worse than voters in unreserved villages rated their leaders (generally men) even though objective measures of performance showed no difference. But after two terms of exposure, that bias disappeared. The political reservations also had longer-term consequences for female political participation: almost twice as many women stood for and won unreserved councilor positions in villages where the leadership position had been reserved for two terms.

The effects of reframing and other so-called “small miracles” are not panaceas for development. Agricultural productivity is a function of more than what farmers pay attention to, and student achievement gaps result at least as much from cognitive and non-cognitive skill differences among groups of students as they do from identity dynamics. Affirmative action policies have promise in some areas, but they have failed in others (e.g. Pandey 2005). Yet the process of development may be fundamentally shaped by what members of a society have or have not ‘seen,’ experienced, and imagined. Much of our thinking is automatic, not deliberative, and automatic cognition is deeply cultural. Reliance on mental models enables us to act swiftly.  We are always looking through frames, the edges of which are circumscribed by our social and cultural experiences. Since failures of ‘seeing’ are generally the result of automatic rather than deliberative thinking, there is significant opportunity for small interventions to change mental frames and improve well-being.

Pandey, Priyanka. 2005. "Service Delivery and Corruption in Public Services: How Does History Matter and Can Mandated Political Representation Reverse the Effects of History?" Manuscript. 

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