The Framing Bias in Action

In the earlier entry, “12 Reads for ’12,” we mention the great Daniel Kahneman and his discovery of cognitive biases.  Our Framing Bias helps us to instantly assess situations for threats.  In evolutionary terms, humans have relied on mental shortcuts and cognitive biases such as Framing in order to survive.  But they cut two ways. They also prevent us — even  trained, keen observers such as police officers  — from hearing and seeing important information when it comes from unexpected “frames” or contexts.  That is, when information comes from people, places or things from which we do not expect such information.

Here is a great example, from an experiment sponsored by the Washington Post a few years ago.

“A man sat at a metro station in Washington DC and started to play the violin; it was a cold January morning. He played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time, since it was rush hour, it was calculated that 1,100 people went through the station, most of them on their way to work.

Three minutes went by, and a middle-aged man noticed there was a musician playing. He slowed his pace, and stopped for a few seconds, and then hurried up to meet his schedule.”

(To see the video clip, use this address or go on YouTube and search Joshua Bell.   I’ll figure out someday how to copy videos into this blog)

“A minute later, the violinist received his first dollar tip: a woman threw the money in the till and without stopping, and continued to walk.

A few minutes later, someone leaned against the wall to listen to him, but the man looked at his watch and started to walk again. Clearly he was late for work.

The one who paid the most attention was a 3-year-old boy. His mother tagged him along, hurried, but the kid stopped to look at the violinist. Finally, the mother pushed hard, and the child continued to walk, turning his head all the time. This action was repeated by several other children. All the parents, without exception, forced them to move on.

In the 45 minutes the musician played, only 6 people stopped and stayed for a while. About 20 gave him money, but continued to walk their normal pace. He collected $32. When he finished playing and silence took over, no one noticed it. No one applauded, nor was there any recognition.

No one knew this, but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the most talented musicians in the world. He had just played one of the most intricate pieces ever written, on a violin worth $3.5 million dollars.  Two days before his playing in the subway, Joshua Bell sold out Boston Symphony Hall where the seats averaged $100.”


About stephenomeara

My name is Jim Jordan. I have had the privilege of working with the Boston Police Department and hundreds more departments over my nearly 30-year career in police administration and city government. I am now teaching and consulting independently at I have learned the best of what I know from the thousands of smart, dedicated and ethical police personnel and scholars who have guided me along the way. My address is named for the great Reform commissioner of the Boston Police at the turn of the 20th century. Commissioner O'Meara died just a short while before the Strike in 1919. He was replaced by a vicious puppet (of Gov. Coolidge) named Edwin U. Curtis. Had O'Meara lived events may have turned out quite differently.
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One Response to The Framing Bias in Action

  1. Makes sense that this dynamic- of coming to conclusions based on context- is essential to become aware of, so we actually notice what we observe and experience. Hence- Joni MItchell’s “He Played Real Good For Free.” Guess it’s all about keeping our eyes open, staying awake and aware in life. Nice piece!

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