Today I, with millions of other home cooks around the country, will be getting frisky in the kitchen with all manner of saturated fats and simple carbohydrates as I beget a table full of gorgeous harvest pies. I make pie once a year, the day before Thanksgiving; the rest of the year I prefer my saturated fats and simple carbohydrates in other forms. But at about 4:00 on Thanksgiving Day, surrounded by a riot of dirty dishes and family, there’s nothing in this world or out of it that tastes better.
Social scientists would call my Thanksgiving palate a “framing effect”. The framing effect is an important concept in economics and psychology, describing the way in which the presentation of an object or idea in different contexts will change people’s decision-making. By swapping out one emotional frame for another—Thanksgiving Day for Easter, say—we change our perception of the object or opportunity at hand, even though it remains objectively constant. Pie is pie, after all. Thus an egg presented to tasters as “free-range” and “organic” will taste better than the same egg served, say, as part of a blind taste test.
Technically speaking, the framing effect is a cognitive bias. Framing distorts our perception of reality, and it can be manipulated to produce irrational decisions. Despite this potential for abuse, though, I want to speak up in defense of the humble framing effect, especially at this Thanksgiving season. While it’s occasionally in our interest to recognize and critically question the frames that shape our perception, the truth is that framing is ubiquitous to the human way of being in the world—it’s a fundamental operation of the human mind, a central mode of human communication, and a central feature of our emotional lives.
Framing is also faith’s modus operandi in the lives of believers. Faith frames our perception of everything from the events of world history to our most intimate identity. By imbuing the events and states of our lives—birth, death, sex, illness, social status, desire, despair, joy—with a moral meaning of cosmic significance, faith works at the deepest level of perception to shape our attitudes and decisions. Thus rationalists are absolutely right when they point out that faith introduces a colossal bias into believers’ experience of the world. But they are wrong if they suppose that they are somehow immune to framing effects themselves. The question to ask is whether the framing effects of faith ultimately contribute to human flourishing and the flourishing of our communities.
When it comes to gratitude, especially, I think faith can be an expansive, humane frame through which to experience the world. Everybody appreciates the natural beauty of the autumn season. But a believer perceives not only the pleasing visual stimulus but also the emotional pleasure of receiving a gift: a caring creator God carefully prepared the visual feast as a gift of love for his children. The perfect face of a child becomes even more precious to a parent who believes that she is a priceless soul, a gift and stewardship from God. Faith can even transform suffering and tragedy into an occasion of gratitude: an omnipotent, loving Heavenly Father compassionately designed a custom-made opportunity for growth, delivered together with a promise of the spiritual resources to overcome pain and grief. That’s the alchemy of faith at work, folks, transforming dross into gold with the power of the frame.
This is not to say that atheists and agnostics have no capacity for gratitude: certainly a naturalistic worldview supplies its own framing effects, many of which are indeed conducive to gratitude and human flourishing. Nor is to suggest that faith’s framing effects are always positive: certainly a faith-based worldview can lead to parochialism and solipsism, as well as gratitude and hope. Nevertheless, I count the framing effect of gratitude among the gifts of faith to the individual and to society at large.
I’ll be grateful for my frames this Thanksgiving—especially the one around the sweet potato pie. Happy Thanksgiving, all!