How framing influences how we think about the future

Innovation is such a crucial part of modern working life that most of us have cause to think about the future on a daily basis.  What is perhaps less well known however is how thinking about the future influences our decision making today.

For instance, a 2015 study from the University of Southern California examined how framing can influence our planning processes.  The researchers discovered that people would often regard the future as much closer if they framed any upcoming goals or deadlines in terms of days rather than months and years.  They suggest that this simple alteration can be much more effective in ensuring we accomplish the goals we set ourselves.

Sequential thinking

A more recent study also highlighted the importance of framing.  It suggests that when we frame our choice as a sequence of events, we can exert more patience, especially in the face of short-term temptations.

“People often have difficulty forgoing immediate temptations, like hitting the snooze button on the alarm, for the sake of later benefits. One possible reason is that people tend to consider the immediate consequences of a particular action, like getting a few more minutes of sleep, more than the later ones, like not having time for breakfast,” the authors say.

“Past work has shown that a subtle change in how choices are framed can increase people’s patience. We found evidence that this change affects patience by increasing imagination and its role in decision-making,” they continue.

Willpower has wide ranging benefits, but our apparent ability to resist immediate temptation does not always result in increases in patience.  For instance, the research on framing finds that our patience levels can be modified without any changes to willpower at all.  This latest study wanted to test whether imagination played a part.

Imagination and patience

Participants were given a series of binary choices and asked to choose their favorite.  Sometimes the choices were framed as independent of each other, whilst at other times they were framed as sequential.

When the results were analyzed, it emerged that they were more likely to exhibit patience when options were framed as a sequence.  What’s more, in a second experiment, those who were given options in this way were also found to be more likely to imagine the potential outcomes of their choices.

Interestingly, when the participants had their brains scanned whilst making choices in both scenario, it emerged that sequential decision makers used a part of the brain linked with imagination, whereas their peers used the part of the brain linked with willpower.

The authors suggest that this may be useful in framing options to encourage particular types of behavior.

“Our findings suggest that imagination and willpower represent dissociable routes to patience,” they say. “Willpower might enable people to override impatient impulses after they’re formed, whereas imagining future consequences might affect the formation of the impulses themselves.”

It would seem as though imagining the consequences of our actions may be especially useful when circumstances for making decisions aren’t ideal.  For instance, if we’re tired or stressed, we often have reduced willpower, so resorting to this approach could have beneficial results.