Framing Reality

3 minutes reading time

Consider the topic of child exemptions in the tax code. A standard exemption is allowed for each child, and the amount of the exemption is independent of the taxpayer’s income.1

Next, consider this proposition and pay attention to your immediate thoughts and intuitions:

Should the child exemption be larger for the rich than the poor?

Did you find the idea of favouring the rich with a larger exemption completely unacceptable? Almost everyone does. Yet tax law is arbitrary. It assumes a childless family as the default case and reduces the tax by the amount of the exemption for each child. It could be rewritten with a different default case: a family with two children. Given this formulation, families with fewer than the default number of children would pay a surcharge.

Now consider this proposition, and again pay attention to your reaction:

Should the childless poor pay as large a surcharge as the childless rich?

Most likely you had the same reaction as most people, rejecting this as much as the first.

However, if you study these two options you will see that they are identical, logically you cannot reject both proposals.

If you want the poor to receive as much, or more, benefit as the rich for having children then you must also want the poor to pay at least the same penalty as the rich for having children.

I presented the above without preamble to avoid priming your brain with preconceptions or otherwise evoke other association cascades which might alter your immediate thoughts. I copied it almost verbatim from Thinking, Fast and Slow2 to ensure I didn’t introduce further biases into it.

The purpose is to point out that you are being morally influenced by the framing. The intuitions you have are dependent on an arbitrary reference point and you focus on this instead of the real problem: that being how much tax individual families should pay.

How do you fill in a matrix to create a tax code? The point made in Thinking, Fast and Slow is that our preferences are about framed problems and our moral intuitions are about descriptions, not about substance.

By coincidence, in my daily stoic practice I had also read:

Do away with the opinion I am harmed, and the harm is cast away too. Do away with being harmed, and harm disappears. - Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 4.7

Modern research and study have shown us how our brains work and the “tricks” it plays on us. It is clear that we have been aware of much of this for aeons. The Stoics realised this and trained themselves to try and counter these thoughts. In today’s world, it is ever more critical that we do so too. Be mindful of the words that others use to manipulate (by intention or not) and do not let your emotional response dictate your thoughts and actions. Instead, consider what is really being said or asked and respond accordingly.

Pay close attention in conversation to what is being said, and to what follows from any action. In the action, immediately look for the target, in words, listen closely to what is being signalled.. - Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 7.4

You can choose how you react to words - it is within your reasoned choice. When words are written and you don’t have the tone of voice or other cues, choose to believe that the other person means well and respond in kind. You’ll often be right.

Our brains are amazing, wonderful things capable of so much, yet they also have massive flaws and blind spots. We no longer have to worry constantly about the most basic requirements of survival. Unfortunately, our brains have not and cannot evolve at the same pace, undoing many thousands of years of ingrained behaviour. The same mechanisms which before kept us safe from harm cause us to make bad decisions or judgements that materially affect our future. Worse, we don’t even realise it most of the time.

I highly recommend reading Thinking, Fast and Slow. It’s an eye-opening book to the many ways that our brains are wired, causing us to do or think things that are not logical, make bad decisions or be manipulated. Pay attention to your own thoughts, be mindful of your biases and the actions that result from them.

  1. As presented in Thinking, Fast and Slow but is from Thomas Schelling and his book Choice and Consequence

  2. Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

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