Reframing and Singer’s Paradox

The ethicist Peter Singer challenges his students with a thought experiment: if they spotted a child drowning in the pond they pass on the way to school, would they stop to save the child even if it meant ruining their clothes and missing their first class? His students say that they would. They even agree that they have an ethical obligation to save the child. I think most of us would agree.

The paradox comes in when Singer points out that these students, and most of us, have the opportunity to save people every day by doing without a luxury item and instead sending that money to an organization which saves the lives of those worldwide who are at risk of dying. And yet we generally don’t. Why is it that we’d save the drowning child, but not other children?

The reason Singer suggests is that the closer we are to a problem, the stronger we feel it and the more likely that it will push us to act.

This is what made Arnold Schwarzenegger’s recent reframing of the case for clean energy so powerful. Frustrated that he hadn’t been able to get more people to agree with him on climate change, he decided that it was more important to get people to act than to get them to agree.

So he took a method for slowing climate change, adopting clean energy, and reframed it as a health issue—a very personal health issue. He has the reader imagine being in a closed room with a running gas-powered car, or a running electric car, and think about what they’re breathing. It doesn’t get much closer to us than the air we breathe.

The next time people aren’t connecting with the change you want to make, think about Singer’s Paradox. How can you frame your change idea to touch something very close to the people you want to reach, whether they’re your customers, clients, colleagues, employees, partners, investors, or board? Reframe your change idea to bring its impact closer to them, and see what a difference that makes.

Image: “Framed” by Darrel Birkett under a CC BY 2 license

What have been your reframing successes and challenges? We at SoulCo would love to hear your stories!