About Kiah and QUT

Kiah supports two behavioural economics research programs under the BITA program at Queensland University of Technology (QUT).   We do so because influence and persuasion are not only part of our toolset in changing the way things get done, but we recognise the danger in deploying those tools unwisely.

This article, written by one of the researchers, explore some of the impacts of how we say things as well as what we say. Take a moment to arm yourself with a new tool. You might be better at your job, equally you might be a bit safer.

The old saying of “it’s not what you say, but how you say it” rings pretty true in the public sector. This saying also undoubtedly sits front of mind across all aspects of public service—from the initial stages of policy development to its implementation and evaluation.

How and what you say is extraordinarily influential. It’s a fine line between being influential or manipulative. It is easy to cross over into the realms of misinformation (the unintentional misrepresentation), and misinformation or disinformation (intentionally misleading).

Ultimately, how influential you are will depend on how your communication is ‘framed’. Humans are geared towards avoiding losses, and we tend to feel them more than we do gains of an equal value. For example, we know that people defend against a loss twice as hard as they pursue the same gain. Framing an argument that “if take this path, we will stop losing $1m” is twice as influential as saying” we will save a $1m”. Humans…as it turns out, are not only geared towards avoiding losses, but they are influenced by communications that are framed this way.

The concept of “framing” is far from new. A term first coined by Gregory Bateson and elaborated upon by sociologist Erving Goffman in the 70’s has become a cornerstone in behavioural economics.

It was popularised in the 1980s by researchers Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. Their research into framing illustrates how different presentations of the same information can lead to varied conclusions among individuals, highlighting the influential role of context and interpretation.

Framing transcends mere presentation.  It shapes how information is perceived and understood.

How we say something, in many ways, determines how people interpret what they hear.

In 1981, researchers Feldman and March noted, “information is often produced not merely to inform but to influence and persuade, making it a tool of power” (p. 176).

The power of framing, and how it is used as a tool of power in the public sector cannot be denied.

Framing within the public sector by virtue has the angel and the devil on either side of the same coin: it can enhance public understanding and support, acting as a force for good, or it can be exploited to manipulate outcomes, representing a darker side of influence.

A country’s citizenry relies on political systems to focus on relevant issues, develop policies, and communicating these policies effectively.

However, even well-intentioned policies can be clouded by misinformation—incorrect information can be spread unintentionally, a phenomenon as old as humanity itself, exacerbated by the inherent noise in media ecosystem. Recent global events, including the COVID-19 pandemic, Brexit, and the 2016 US Election, have underscored the fine line between framing and misinformation—and the lines between misinformation and malinformation.

The true intentions behind political actions are often not shared with the public, which has emotional and psychological consequences in the community (you just never really know if you are being told the full story?). And, when incorporating the potential for misinformation to be added to the mix, the public may inevitably make decisions that generate emotional and psychological fluctuations; all under the misdirection of misinformation (Luo et al., 2021).

At the end of the day, Governments and politicians naturally employ framing – it makes sense that they do – not all policy details are pertinent to every individual at all times. Employing framing to ensure that communities understand and support policy intents is crucial for maintaining a transparent and functional democracy. Framing is an important tool in the policymakers toolbox.

It is when this tool is used for darker intents, and morphs from framing to misinformation that it carries substantial societal costs, and in political systems such as Australia, this should be avoided at all costs (if for no other reason than to avoid further diminishing any sense of trust in government).

Recognising and addressing misinformation in government is a first order (and global), policy issue (Maffioli & Gonzales, 2022). Effective public policy communication must balance the substance of policies with how they are communicated, ensuring that the community grasps not only the policies themselves but also accurately interpret their intended benefits.

This balance is essential for cultivating trust and achieving sustainable positive outcomes, expectations that citizens should rightfully hold for their elected officials and the bureaucratic systems that support them.

The key message for the public service – if you employ framing, and you should, make sure you consider the potential consequences of not only what you say…but how you say it.


About Trish Galliford

With a communications and marketing career spanning two decades, Patricia has developed and led strategic and tactical functions across federal and state governments, not for profit, early learning education, medical retail, tertiary education, and financial services industries. Patricia is a purpose-led professional who through undertaking her PhD through ARC BITA seeks to amplify her expertise through building capability and depth to her work through employing behavioural economic applied research techniques.

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