Framing the Question

A couple of interesting essays about how people perceive problems and decide how to behave:

The Marketplace of Perceptions, by Craig Lambert, in Harvard Magazine, March-April 2006, concerns the strong shaping force of human psychology in economic and other choices that have long been thought to be made completely (or mostly) rationally and always (or almost always) in the best interests of the chooser. But most people don’t evaluate the risks and rewards of their choices objectively: Lambert cites a paper published in 1979 by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, titled “Prospect Theory: An Analysis of Decision under Risk,” in which the authors argue “that the ways in which alternatives are framed — not simply their relative value — heavily influence the decisions people make.”

This reminded me of Peter Sawtell’s latest Eco-Justice Ministry Notes essay, “Locating the Problem,” in which he writes about “locating the problem, phrasing the question”, which “makes all the difference in what solutions are considered. He mentions his own belief that his perennially messy office was due to his lack of organizational ability, but then realizes, over time, that “I don’t have an organizational problem. I have too much stuff. The magazines and newsletters, newspaper clippings, old letters and other papers don’t need a better way to be filed. They need to be thrown out. … As I try to clean my office, ‘how do I organize this stuff?’ gives a completely different answer than ‘what stuff do I need?’” (He goes on to apply his ideas to the “environmental problem,” which he reframes as a “humanity problem.”)

Sawtell’s essay suggests that framing the question, or problem, differently will elicit different responses; Lambert’s suggests that framing the alternatives, or solutions, differently will elicit different responses. (This is a connection that linguistics professor George Lakoff is well-known for positing.) All this seems obvious but IMO is actually a very subtle dynamic. We often don’t realize that someone else has framed a problem or question for us, and we don’t realize there is another way to think about it that might lead us to a whole new set of responses.

For instance, at a church I attend we are discussing the budget, and how income doesn’t meet outgo. All of these questions have been asked during conversation about the budget “crisis,” some explicitly, some only implied by the solutions suggested: How can we raise income to meet outgo? How can we reduce outgo to meet income? How can we bring more people to the church, and what’s an effective marketing plan? What is a faithful response to money shortfalls? How does Jesus see poverty and wealth; what does the Bible say about faithful stewardship? What does this church offer that other churches don’t? How can we focus our mission to create a niche, express God’s purpose more concretely, and/or attract more people/income? How is leadership effectiveness measured? Why aren’t people volunteering to be leaders or even to attend a few evening meetings? Will a proliferation of small groups, a good marketing plan, a focused mission, and/or good leadership lead to increased income? What is a community of faith — does it require a church building, a budget, paid staff? What do other churches the size of this church pay their staff, and how big are their budgets? How important is Jesus in the scheme of things? Are we “the light,” do we reflect God’s light, are we hiding our light under a bushel?

I get dizzy just thinking about the dozens of ways we are approaching the problem (which problem??), all at once. My analysis is that this church is having an identity crisis, i.e., it doesn’t know what we stand for, what we offer, what to spend our money on, how to worship.  Each faith community participant may be able to answer these questions for him/herself, but as a community, we seem vastly confused. Perhaps this is a necessary phase for us. I find myself wishing that I knew whether, like Sawtell, we are just not well-organized or whether we are trying to organize too much stuff. Or perhaps neither and I need to reframe the question.

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