Have you ever been in a situation where you thought you knew the facts but in hindsight, you realised that your decision how to solve the problem was based on wrong assumptions about the situation or other people’s motives?

Humans are constantly using frames to figure out what is happening and why. The new book Framers: Human Advantage in an Age of Technology and Turmoil shows us the complexities involved in human judgment but also points us to several strategies in how we can use frames.

Framing might seem like a “soft skill” and something ambiguous. But the way we define a problem has a massive impact on what we think are the most effective solutions. Our “story” (frame) about a situation convinces us to choose one perspective over another.

This is fine as long as we have the right frame and judge a situation correctly. But often we choose a wrong frame and end up making bad decisions as an outcome.

Luckily this book offers a wide range of insights into how we can become better framers and why  even in the era of AI, we still need our human capabilities to improve the way we use information and design systems.

What are frames exactly?

Frames are mental models that humans use in making decisions as to what something is and why.

Frames are critical for our decision-making: they condense complex information into actionable choices; they define a problem that then directs our solutions how to solve it.

For example, parents often frame a problem around “children spend too much time on screens”. This leads us to pursue hobbies for them that involve no screens.  But another framing e.g. “parents are too busy/exhausted to spend time with their children” is also possible for this problem. This framing could focus on solutions that involve quality time spent together rather than only seeking new hobbies the kids should do by themselves (without screens).

What Cukier and colleagues note is that

the right frame applied in the right way opens up a wider range of possibilities, which in turn leads to better choices. The frames we employ affect the options that we see, the decisions that we make, and the results we attain. By being better at framing, we get better outcomes” (p. 5).

 Understanding the process and factors involved in framing is essential if we want to become better strategists and innovators.

The essentials of framing 

There are three key concepts that determine how we develop and use frames to assess a situation: causality, counterfactuals and constraints.

Causality is a mental template as to why particular things happen  and with what outcomes: “Causality helps us to comprehend reality and predict the consequences of our decisions” (p. 52).

The use of causal templates reduces the time we need to make decisions. As we learn often through experience, we develop a rich repertoire of different templates that seem to work in particular situations.

Causal templates are a set of specific tools to help you to make fast decisions in somewhat familiar situations. Without these templates, we would have to start from scratch every time, which slows our decision-making capabilities and skills considerably.

We can improve our causal thinking in various ways. Cukier and colleagues suggest that just by increasing your awareness of which causal templates you use is critical:

We can pause and ask ourselves: “What is the reason that this is happening? What is the silent assumption or explanation that I’m making, that may or may not be true?” (p. 71)

This reflective process helps in identifying frames and helps you to also question their use or usefulness for that particular situation.

Counterfactuals in turn are used to imagine g a different world with different outcomes. Counterfactuals are about imaginary play where you imagine different outcomes and different situations and try out frames.

It enables us to take a step back and identify other ways of thinking. It also shows us potential outcomes that might emerge because of our decision or specific frame we have chosen to experiment with. Children  practice counterfactual thinking constantly through imaginative play where they change the story or invent new characters in a familiar story that change the ending.

Constraints are also critical in framing:

“Without constraints, we might imagine an enormous range of alternative realities that are so ill-connected to the causal mental model that they fail to inform our actions. We need the right boundaries for our imagination to elicit choices we have” (p. 101).

We can either loosen constraints or make them tighter depending on the frame we are playing with. There are some constraints that are hard and that are set but many constraints are “soft” and these are harder to identify.

When identifying soft constraints, one needs to pay attention to mutability, minimal change and consistency.

With mutability, we need to identify those constraints we can actually influence as that information is often most useful in what is possible. With minimal change, choose factors that make the problem more simplistic than unrealistically complex. With consistency, ensure that the constraints do not totally contradict each other.

Applying framing to climate adaptation 

The idea of how frames impact our decisions has recently been recognised also in climate adaptation science.

Siders and Pierce (2021) examined recently how to make decisions on adaptation and noted the role that heuristics play in this process and the kinds of decision-making frameworks, and their associated assumptions, professionals use in making decisions on adaptation.

Singh et al. (2021) also examined 11 frames/principles of adaptation effectiveness and how these influence what can be said about effective adaptation depending on the chosen frame. They very nicely analyze several adaptation projects through these different 11 frames and show clear examples how the EbA frame for example results in a very different outcome from a transformational frame.

This work is very similar to my own research on adaptation heuristics and supports our findings that many of the core assumptions about adaptation vary across contexts. My current Australian Research Council project is still ongoing in this space as I keep exploring the diversity of the adaptation heuristics in use and how these differ across decision-making contexts.

What this book has made me realise is that adaptation heuristics can be contradictory and that that’s ok. We are better off having a broad diversity of frames/heuristics that we can employ in our decision-making rather than trying to hold tightly to one frame and force it to work in every situation. Eg in some context the heuristic that “adaptation is local” works perfectly well but in others it does not (eg see Nalau et al. 2021).

As part of becoming master framers, a skill that also climate adaptation professionals need to develop is cognitive flexibility, which focuses on understanding diverse ways of thinking. The authors note that while changing a frame is not always optimal as it introduces new uncertainties, having an appreciation of multiple ways of understanding a problem and its intended goals is critical.

The bottomline is that people who are great framers increase their organisations’ cognitive flexibility and innovation by seeing things that others often don’t. It is a key skill of the 21st century and beyond.