Money talks: the impact of economic framing on how we act and feel

We’re ‘consumers’ or ‘taxpayers’ and we care about things like ‘pay-off’, ‘return on investment’ and ‘growth’: that’s the bottom line. Right?

Well, I’d put my money on it.

But, actually, when did that happen? When did we start to pepper our meetings, our work, and even dinner conversations with such words and phrases? Sometimes, our use of economic framing has an obvious trigger; take ‘credit crunch’. In one of the recent economic crises, journalists repeatedly used it (with a straight face), and then before you knew it, the 2008 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary carried a new definition of the word ‘crunch’, as meaning “a severe shortage of money or credit”. It was always pretty difficult to pass that particular term casually into everyday conversation, but now we officially associate crunch with economic recession, as well as biscuits.

Economic frames easily creep into everyday language via news media, or advertising, or political rhetoric, but we have little awareness of the effect that might have on the way that we think and behave. Psychological research is finally shedding light on this.

bride and groom

The ‘name of the game’

In 2004, researchers at Stanford University observed people playing the Prisoner’s Dilemma, a much-studied game of cooperation or betrayal where individuals can demonstrate altruistic, strategic or selfish motives. They created two versions of the game, totally identical except in name: half the participants played the ‘Wall Street Game’, and the other half the ‘Community Game’. The Wall Street players were consistently more likely to betray the other players and attempt to win the highest rewards through selfish means. But those who played the Community game, on the other hand, tended to cooperate with their counterparts.

The experiment ran with a group of American students and a group of Israeli Air Force trainees, and the findings were the same. To ensure that this pattern of play was unaffected by the personality traits of the participants, the researchers also asked participant’s friends and colleagues to rate how likely that person was to co-operate or betray during the game. In both experiments this rating had no ability to predict the outcome: it was simply the wording of the title that affected people’s playing style.

The obvious question to ask is how the title of the game affected play. There seem to be three possibilities: it may have shaped the participants’ personal motivations towards the game; their expectations of how others would play; or both. In the Wall Street game, for example, people may have assumed that other players would be ruthless and uncooperative, and so changed their tactics accordingly. The evidence suggests it is a mix. In both the Wall Street and the Community games, when people anticipated betrayal in others, they chose to respond with the same. But cooperation was different. When participants in the Community game expected cooperation, they generally opted to cooperate in return. In the Wall Street game, however, participants expecting cooperation chose to exploit it by betraying others.

wall st

On this evidence, it seems that words and phrases really can affect our immediate impressions, expectations and choices. Just using the term ‘Wall Street’, which many associate with the values of self-interest, competition and exploitation, is enough to cue aggressive and anti-social tactics during games.

What, then, if the frame in question is not an abstract phrase, but rather relates more directly to the way we think of ourselves?

Consumer versus Citizen

In 2012, a research group at Northwestern University in Chicago ran a series of similar experiments on economic framing, this time testing the effects of the word ‘consumer’.

In one experiment, they gave half the participants a computer task called the Consumer Reaction Study and the other half a task called the Citizen Reaction Study. The two tasks were in fact identical – the only difference was in the framing of the title. Yet they elicited strikingly different responses. The Consumer group was much quicker to associate positive emotions with materialistic values, such as wealth, image and success. This implies that they had a subconscious preference for materialism, triggered solely by automatic associations with the word ‘consumer’.

The next experiment extended this approach to see if other consumer-related words – such as ‘buy’, ‘status’, ‘asset’, or ‘expensive’ – would alter the way people rated their own competitiveness and desire to get involved in social activities. When they read these words, instead of more neutral words, participants tended to consider themselves more competitive and willing to out-do others. They were also less inclined to pursue ‘high-investment’ social activities (such as joining student groups, or signing up to volunteer for a good cause), but more inclined to favour ‘low-investment’ activities, such as having dinner or watching a film with friends. This striking reversal of social priorities suggests that materialism cues lead people to avoid intense, cooperative engagement with others and, as the authors put it, “instead opt for cheap-and-easy ways to satisfy their need to connect”.

In the final experiment, the researchers explored this link between materialism and anti-social behaviour by giving people a simulated resource-management assignment. As before, they sought to identify the impact of the single word ‘consumer’, but this time compared it with the word ‘individual’ rather than ‘citizen’. The participants were asked to read about an imaginary water shortage crisis, and act out the role of the person considered most to blame. They were then asked to rate how they felt about the situation, and how they would approach the solution. When the scenario referred to the participants using the frame ‘consumers’ instead of ‘individuals’, people felt less personally responsible for the problem, were less willing to trust the other players, and were less likely to consider cooperating to resolve the dilemma.

survey ate

What does this really mean?

Both these studies suggest that allowing economic frames to become part of our everyday speech is likely to have negative side-effects. But how do single words have such an impact on us? The research suggests that it is because we unconsciously associate particular words and phrases with certain values, so words like ‘consumer’ or ‘Wall street’ are more likely to trigger values around wealth, achievement and social status, which in turn are likely to make us feel and act in certain ways. Economics and money are often associated with the self-interested ‘rational economic actor’: homo economicus. And when we are reminded of this identity, we have a greater tendency to act more like him/her, and express similar values.

These two studies have isolated some particular experimental conditions where this has a measurable impact on our behaviour. But we know from numerous other studies that these ‘self-enhancement’ values can affect our motivation for a whole host of behaviours beyond those tested in this research. In particular, they are associated with lower environmental concern and conservation behaviour; greater competitiveness and profit-seeking, and lower well-being.

Unfortunately, there is evidence that economic language is becoming a growing part of our everyday lexicon. We are being increasingly mistaken for homo economicus. The use of the term ‘consumer’ is especially notable: it outstripped ‘citizen’ during the 1970s, and is still on the rise.

consumer citizen book frequency

Figure 1: Incidence of ‘consumer’ vs. ‘citizen’ in books archived by Google Ngram 1800-2000

Faced with this evidence, we can make a strong case for applying the precautionary principle. If single words can have a short term impact like this, then the wider effects of economic language in politics and media are likely to be greater. But we do help shape the rhetoric, so this is partly within our control. Popular movements have rendered words, phrases and even whole discourses unacceptable: consider racist and sexist epithets, or the recent furore over the word ‘pleb’. In the case of economics, we may already have a hidden advantage: economic frames often just feel wrong. Who likes being called ‘an asset’ by the ‘Human Resources’ Department, or a ‘customer’ of the Department for Work and Pensions? And does anyone really think of their gardens or local forests as ‘natural capital’?

By scrutinising and criticising news stories and political speeches, and deliberately using words with more positive associations, we can avoid unintentionally reinforcing unhelpful economic frames. It’s time, in other words, to stop putting our money where our mouth is.

Bec SandersonMoney talks: the impact of economic framing on how we act and feel

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  • Tanya Hawkes - February 19, 2013 reply

    This is really interesting. It would be amazing to create alternative language and terminology to use in workplaces based on this. Perhaps explore with some workshops for interested organisations?

  • BecSanderson - February 19, 2013 reply

    Yes! Definitely. We’re creating a ‘hit list’ (except, er, re-framed) for particular words and terms that have unhelpful connotations; militaristic and economic frames in particular. As a workshop exercise, we could offer a kind of re-framing clinic for NGO speak – both highlighting the problematic terms and offering nicer alternatives.

  • RU_orangejam - February 20, 2013 reply

    “hit-list” should probably be on your hit-list

  • John Blundell - February 24, 2013 reply

    Thank you for this reflection on the moral, emotional and psychological scourge of consumerism. I heard recently it was HAYEK who coined the term economism. I’ll try to sign up with Disqus.

  • John Blundell - February 24, 2013 reply

    Well bless my woolly left academic sock if I haven’t managed to sign in with you.
    Let me add another point of departure from your Economic Framing blog : Time (magga-zihn, they say) of May 2012 ran a 10 great ideas feature. Calamitously, Nature is Over was on the proverbial list.
    Such are the pitfalls of , well, lists of proscribed or correct terms in neurolinguistics studies : your reference to Natural Capital reminded me that this economically-framed term is valuable in political discourse, not least to argue down those who imagine our species can survive or thrive in an ecological bubble or that there is no significant risk to civil society from anthropogenic carbon emissions…

  • Charlie_Mansell - March 3, 2013 reply

    An excellent analysis. Its clear the framing in consumerist terms is a challenge for progressives. The question is can you build a movement that “render…words, phrases and even whole discourses unacceptable: consider racist and sexist epithets, or the recent furore over the word ‘pleb’” as you state. I would have thought this will be more difficult for two reasons:

    1. This argument is a bit western in its analysis. Consumerism is likely to be seen by people with sustenance, security and safety values on the Schwarz wheel as a big advance in their lives. This is not just China and India, but as the Economist reports this week the growth patterns in Africa will lead to large scale consumerism. Those people may want to experience the status that comes with ‘conspicuous consumption’ which may mean their post-materialist grandchildren can perhaps later reject it. Thus the process of change in global terms is likely to take the rest of the 21c.

    2. We are not the only people who have spotted this and when we fight this battle, we do not work in a neutral or academic environment. The marketing departments of capitalist companies will be evolving consumerism in many subtle ways, even things that look alternative. Even if one doesn’t agree with every point in the book Rebel Sell they do have a point. Look how even Crop Circles are used to promote companies or brands!:) Do we think NGO’s have the resources to ‘win’ this battle, and how authoritarian should we go (eg level of advertising ban beyond harmful to health products?)?

    Jamie McQuilkin - March 4, 2013 reply

    Some good thoughts. In response:

    1. Yes, it is a bit western-centric, but only in as much as we have the benefit of hindsight as to the effects of consumerism. Hopefully the West can serve as a shining example of what not to do! For example, we now know that satisfying our survival needs (security, safety etc.) does not need consumption at Western levels too, and that conspicuous consumption has many negative effects. Obviously this will be a difficult point to get across, but other countries at least now have the benefit of our example and the developing body of evidence, neither of which we had. Unfortunately, if it does take the rest of the 21st century as you say, then that is quite possibly game over for large portions of humanity for reasons of sustainability. We have quite an interest in making this work!

    2. If authoritarianism is a ban on all advertising (at least billboards), then that’s something I’d like to see, and I say that as someone who strongly values autonomy. I think a comparable situation is the proposed ban on violent pornography in Iceland, due to the acknowledged social damage it causes. This is from a country with a very strong tradition of freedom of expression, which has correctly prioritised”freedom from…” instead of “freedom to…”, really based on the precautionary principle (evidence is notoriously hard to gather for that, not least due to the lack of unexposed control groups!). The onus should be on advertisers to explain why they should be given such a self-interested and socially-damaging voice in society. On their own, I don’t personally think NGOs have the resources, and need a committed government or very great public pressure. The latter is maybe more possible than it seems, given the popularity of health-related advertising bans.

    However, given the article above is more about highlighting the problems with everyday words, advertising need not be so relevant – a start would be the government, media and institutions looking at how they address, uh, citizens in everyday communications (cf. the DWP’s “customers”) and a greater awareness of the implications of framing in the rest of society. You are quite right though – we must be cautious that advertisers and others do not subvert those more positive frames, such as ‘community’ and ‘citizen’.

    Charlie_Mansell - March 7, 2013 reply

    I would like to hope the ‘shining example’ approach will work, but the combined 3 billion population of India and China plus a billion plus the billion of more in Africa probably does require a lot of indigenous campaigning on this issue to spread the message. It’s possible that online engagement may speed things up, it requires ‘authentic messengers’ otherwise it will come across as ‘western lectures’. The rise of ‘Conspicuous Consumption’ in half the world is going to present vast challenges for progressives wanting to avoid coming across as ‘lecturing’ compared to the work of pressuring their governments over carbon emissions.

    ‘Banning Billboards’ will be one symbolic act, but I assume your quest for autonomy would not go so far as being too authoritarian over use of the internet? We already see vast amount spent on ‘social media marketing’ and the Obama Dashboard and its Big Data showed the positive side of tapping into people’s networks. However the same will be used by marketing departments to promote consumerist messages. I make this point to illustrate the sheer challenge people face. Perhaps insight driven Social Marketing (in its original and proper definition) needs to be seen much more as part of the activist’s toolkit and not just something public health departments, and road safety and litter campaigns do as part of top-down programmes?

    As you rightly say words are always fought over. Perhaps the solution is capacity building to build big enough movements that crowd out negative connotations and prevents certain words being usurped? Capacity building for effective framing might be an interesting issue for a future blog posting here?

  • Marvin Brown - March 12, 2013 reply

    I agree with your argument that we need a civic language rather than a
    consumer language for our everyday life. In my work, I have seen the
    conflict as one between property ownership as the basis for our life
    together and civic membership. See more at

  • Peter Mclean - March 29, 2013 reply

    I particularly hate being called a customer by announcements on public transport – I’d much rather be a traveller at best, or a commuter at worst.

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