Using Behavioral Psychology to Understand How People "Frame" Mass Shootings

Last week was hard. I mean really hard. The news of the school shooting in South Florida has once again placed the gun debate on the top of the American consciousness. As this debate rages on across every social media platform available, I've found that there is growing mistrust between (a) those who believe that limiting access to guns is the best solution vs. (b) those who believe that increasing armed security is the best solution.

Trust me, this is NOT going to be a politically charged piece. Nope… far from it. I’ll leave those discussions to Twitter and Facebook. What I want to do here is engage my fellow behavioral science friends on how we can use our joint passion for Behavioral Psychology, specifically MindState Mapping, to better understand how people non-consciously “frame” the gun control argument to themselves and others. My hopes are that you too will notice something that I missed until just today… that psychologically we are a lot closer than we think we think. Not making sense? Let me explain…

In my opinion, if you want to understand why people do what they do, it’s important to understand four factors that make up someone’s “mindstate” around an issue or behavior. These factors (Goals, Motivations, Approach and Cognitive Heuristics) together help explain the vast majority of the decisions you make AND the mental models you form around various issues – gun access included. So let’s look at three of these four factors from both sides of the debate on how best to protect our schools from mass shootings in the future.      

GOALS: To me it’s clear that both sides of this debate have the exact same higher-order goals. “Protect Children in School.” Not much more to say here.  

MOTIVATION: Similarly, I can say with high confidence that both sides of this debate have the exact same human motivation driving their goal to Protect Children in School. This core human motivation is what we call the Security Motivation - defined as “an individual's need to feel secure, safe and protected from threats.” So if my math is correct, that is two out of three factors that all sides of this gun debate 100% agree on. Not bad!      

APPROACH: How people approach or “frame” this issue to themselves is largely impacted by their Regulatory Focus. I won’t go over Regulatory Fit Theory here as you all know it by now. But basically people frame their POV using either a “Prevention Regulatory Focus” or a “Promotion Regulatory Focus.” It’s here that the first fissure begins to form between like minded people on the gun debate. 

If you are Prevention Focused, you are more apt to desire ways to minimize risk and thereby prefer strategies that limit the chances of a school shooting from happening. This person would desire ways to keep guns and shooters away from schools and thus prefer to limit guns and using metal detectors to keep the bad out. We would define this as someone in the CAUTIOUS SECURITY mindstate. 

Compare this mindstate to someone who has the exact same goals and motivations, but frames this same issue using a Promotion Focus. If you are Promotion Focused, you are more apt to desire ways to maximize opportunities and thereby prefer strategies that increase the chances of stopping a shooter as quickly as possible. Therefore, this person would desire ways to increase ways to getting help as quickly as possible and thus prefer to place armed guards at schools and locks to insulate students from the shooter until help can arrive. We would define this as someone in the OPTIMISTIC SECURITY mindstate with entirely different ways to communicate to this person to build empathy and understanding.

Here’s my point. When we use behavioral psychology to better understand people we disagree with vs. simply placing them into buckets like Republican vs. Democrat, smart vs. dumb, good vs. evil, we may find that even our most heated rivals have the exact same goals and motivations driving them as we do. We would realize that at our core we have very similar passions and desires to solve this issue. And from this shared base, a platform to find commonality and win/win solutions. 

Do you have a favorite behavioral model that can be used to help better understand why people think the way they think?