If you clicked on a link to read this column, you were likely influenced by a combination of factors: the title (often misleading or sensationalist), an accompanying picture (I bet someone in a uniform), where it appeared on the FP homepage (top is better than bottom), or how it was described in a tweet (short and pithy helps). Advertisers, psychologists, and behavioral economists have long been aware that the social construction of options influences both the choices of decision-makers and their outcomes. Because it is impossible to make decisions in a vacuum, free from external influences, we rely on shortcuts like recommendations from friends, historical precedents, name recognition, or simply cool pictures.
How choices are framed for decision-makers can have negative or positive repercussions -- assuming that the person has some ranking of values or preferences. In their landmark 1981 paper, "The Framing of Decisions and the Psychology of Choice," psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman presented social science experiments that found people reversed their preferences based on manipulative "variations in the framing of acts, contingencies, and outcomes." In the book Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein endorsed the role of "choice architects," engaged in libertarian paternalism that preference certain decisions by, for example, arranging healthy foods prominently at eye level in a school cafeteria to make it more likely children choose to eat them.
And in one memorable scene from The Simpsons movie, Environmental Protection Agency chief Russ Cargill lays out five folders (labeled one to five) on the desk of "President Schwarzenegger" in the Oval Office. He tells the commander-in-chief: "Well, I've narrowed your choices down to five unthinkable options."
Schwarzenegger: Ok, I pick 3!
Cargill: Try again.
Cargill: Go higher.
Cargill: Too high.
Cargill: You already said 3.
Cargill: There is no 6.
Cargill: Double it.
Cargill: As you wish, sir.
Although national security discussions are (hopefully) taken more seriously than the Simpsons would convey, such cartoon satire does have a kernel of truth in how decisions are framed to the president and/or secretary of defense -- collectively, the national command authority permitted by U.S. law to authorize the use of military force. Similar to everyday choices like which brand of cereal to buy, how senior military officials present and characterize military options strongly influences policymakers' decisions.
Recent history is rife with examples of this phenomenon. According to David Halberstam, in the George H.W. Bush and early Clinton administrations, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Colin Powell "would show his lack of enthusiasm by giving [senior civilians] a high estimate, and they would quickly back off. The figure never went under two-hundred thousand troops." Largely as a result of how the choices were framed, the proposed massive ground presence was never seriously considered by civilian officials, who summarily dismissed it as "the usual two-division, $2 billion option."