Why is prayer, liturgy, and studying the Bible important? One reason is that these activities shape the way in which we make decisions. Some recent work on “framing” from behavioral economics, neuroscience, and psychology shed some light on how they do so.
Psychologist Amos Tversky and economist Daniel Kahneman were the first to establish the concept of “framing”: people respond to situations differently depending upon how they interpret it.
Connecting this concept with research in neuroscience, Jonah Lehrer, author of How We Decide, states that
[framing] helps explain why people are much more likely to buy meat when it’s labeled 85 percent lean instead of 15 percent fat. And why twice as many patients opt for surgery when told there’s an 80 percent chance of their surviving instead of a 20 percent chance of their dying.
Dan Arliely, the behavior economist and author of Predictably Irrational, gives the example that
high-priced entrées on the menu boost revenue for the restaurant—even if no one buys them. Why? Because even though people generally won’t buy the most expensive dish on the menu, they will order the second most expensive dish. Thus, by creating an expensive dish, a restaurateur can lure customers into ordering the second most expensive choice (which can be cleverly engineered to deliver a higher profit margin).
When my daughter flipped through the pages of her children’s picture Bible, she naturally stopped at the very first picture of a beautiful woman in a flowing dress, the first one to look like a Disney princess: Delilah. I told her the story of Samson. When I finished, there was a long pause. Finally, she said, “Delilah is beautiful but not nice?” (It was obviously a possibility that neither Barbie nor Disney had spent much time exploring.) I answered, “Yes, sometimes people who are beautiful are not nice.” I could see her wrestling with the concept until finally something clicked. “Oh! She is like Snow White’s mom!”
In Being Consumed, William Cavanaugh argues that the “mythologies” of the marketplace dominate our understanding of the world. People are taught to understand this or that product as associated with this value or that way of life. The result is that consumer culture “is one of the most powerful systems of formation in the contemporary world . . it trains us to see the world in certain ways.” We are, I believe, training by the economy to “frame” our experiences in certain ways.
The examples above show the affects of framing, how it can go wrong, and, most importantly, the need for more and better frames. If we are not reflective or intentional, we can get locked into understanding the world based on a superficial glances of data, popular culture, or marketing. The addition of more frames can marginalize the effects of these inadequate ones and open the person up to a broader and better understanding of the world.
This is why prayer, liturgy, and studying the Bible seem so essential. Biblical study gives people awareness of new stories, stories that they can then use to “frame” the world around them. My daughter knows physical beauty is not equivalent to goodness. Prayer makes these stories not just part of our intellect but part of our whole way of understanding the world. Passages and stories meditated upon stick with us and are called forth or spontaneously emerge in our daily life. Liturgy teaches us how to put these frames in action not in our own idiosyncratic ways but as a whole community. While not always executed perfectly, these actions seem essential if we are to learn to frame out understanding and actions as Christians and have a chance of accomplishing what Dorothy Day hoped for: a world where it is easier to be good.