Framing or Modeling?

Recall that the National Traffic Safety Board voted to ban the use of all portable electronic devices (PEDs) while driving. Against all available scientific evidence, the Board asserts the ban would save lives. This article notes the persuasion play behind the Board’s decision.

For years, policy makers trying to curb distracted driving have compared the problem to drunken driving. The analogy seemed fitting, with drivers weaving down roads and rationalizing behavior that they knew could be deadly. But on Tuesday, in an emotional call for states to ban all phone use by drivers, the head of a federal agency introduced a new comparison: distracted driving is like smoking.

The writer thoughtfully observes this change from Drunk Driving to Smoking as a Framing play which is best understood as the Local rather than the technical persuasion application from the Nobel prize winning Prospect Theory. Framing is like Narrative or Meme or Schema. Framing selects certain elements out of the Local to create a coherent and orderly metaphor that strongly points to a desired conclusion. Frame it as Choice, for example, and the unpleasant physical elements of abortion recede and point to the Local as an individual’s rational act, a guaranteed citizen’s right. Frame PED use while driving as Smoking and you focus on a blind social norm, huge damage, uncontrollable behavior, profiteering others, and point to the need for Collective Action against Individual Addiction.

The writer quotes Deborah Hersman, head of the NTSB, as making this same Framing play.

“Addiction to these devices is a very good way to think about it,” Ms. Hersman said in an interview. “It’s not unlike smoking. We have to get to a place where it’s not in vogue anymore, where people recognize it’s harmful and there’s a risk and it’s not worth it.”

See that acceptance of this Frame drives favorable consequences. For example, with the Smoking Frame, we now have to address the current social status quo that accepts this behavior and make a large cultural change in perception. As with Smoking, PED Driving is actually harmful to both the user and to everyone else. Only large corporations benefit from our harms and indeed are the primary barriers to change. The harms are large and preventable and if we shift the social norm, then we can be a healthier and safer society. Of course, this won’t be easy because the behavior is addictive and by definition, uncontrollable, so there’s got to be a lot of intervention and at the national, state, and local government level; citizens alone and by themselves cannot solve this problem.

Thus, shifting the Frame to Smoking enables a Local that strongly favors the decision of the NTSB.

I now offer a more considered persuasion analysis. I don’t think that the NTSB or traffic safety advocates in general are thoughtfully doing persuasion. I think they are more like children dressing in adult clothes, hoping for a sophisticated consequence. If we act like it’s Smoking, we’ll get all those Advantages.

Consider one large point. PED is not anything like Smoking.

Smoking is without question the greatest voluntary killer humanity has yet devised. Using Windowpane comparisons, tobacco use always produces at least Medium and more often Large to Stupendous effects. Go back and read the 1964 Surgeon General’s report on smoking and you’ll find ratios of 900% or higher for some illnesses. At best the NTSD estimates that approximately 3000 people die in a year from all types of distracted driving with PED being some portion of that. Smoking still kills nearly 300,000 people in the US each year despite the huge declines in smoking rates; that’s a 100 times greater amount than even all Distracted Driving much less PED Driving alone. Smoking is the Babe Ruth, Michael Jordan, and Jim Brown of Hall of Fame killing behaviors. Nothing comes close. Nothing.

And, what made smoking so fabulous at killing was its addictive properties. Nicotine in particular has proven to be a Siren song of rare and enveloping impact. Read the addiction literature and find study after study that shows hard drug addicts kicking heroin, cocaine, marijuana, meth, and on and on before they kick their last habit: Nicotine. By every operational test anyone can devise for the term, Addiction, smoking leaps every bar, hurdle, and span.

Realize, too, that large and hugely profitable businesses developed around tobacco and that these businesses enjoyed legal protection and support for generations. A large sector of the US economy ran on tobacco for over 100 years. It became woven into the free market capitalism structure.

Finally, when people quit smoking the harms immediately moderate, mitigate, and reduce. If you quit soon enough and long enough, your risk for virtually all illnesses will recover to the rate seen for Never Smokers.

Now. PED Driving is like Smoking? Of course not.

But, try to make a metaphor function as a Frame and you get these advocates who are eating their own menu. They think their thinking is meaningful when it is just smoke and mirrors that changes them more than any Other Guys. PED is not Smoking. To Frame PED as Smoking is to make a Frame into a Metaphor which means It is not a Frame, but a Metaphor. Just as children dressing in Mommy and Daddy’s clothes does not make them adults, dressing up in the Smoking Frame only makes PED advocates look like children.

Smoking as Frame or Metaphor is a reliable indicator of a persuasion muggle. Listen for it and almost invariably you will find an advocate, a zealot, a sincere true believer who appears to persuade only themselves with their persuasion efforts.