The Problem with Narrow Framing


Union Major General David Hunter could scarcely believe the sight he encountered on the afternoon of June 17th, 1864.  His Confederate rival, Lieutenant General Jubal Early, appeared to have amassed a much larger defensive force than anticipated, with Early’s resupply trains even now humming along at a brisk pace in the late in the day, offloading ever more grey clad troops and gear in noisy fashion.  Hunter even thought he could hear the roar of Confederate bands playing away inside the city, an odd bit of nonchalance given the stakes: control of the whole Shenandoah Valley.  It seemed Hunter’s intended target of Lynchburg, Virginia would be a costlier prize than he had bargained for.  Not only were Confederate troops more concentrated and better supplied than the token force he expected, their defenses seemed better prepared as well.

Still, he decided to plunge ahead with the attack on the 18th, personally leading a charge around the redoubts arrayed southeast of the city.  He sent Major General George Crook’s division to probe westward, but Crook encountered unfavorable terrain and large numbers of Confederate infantry and got nowhere.  Worse still, Early’s forces saw an opening amid the confusion and launched a counterattack that chased Hunter’s forces until nightfall before withdrawing.  Seeing no benefit in potentially losing more men and time against long odds, Hunter declined to press Lynchburg’s defenses again and began the long march into West Virginia.  As darkness swallowed the scarred terrain, Union losses outnumbered the Confederates’ by a factor of 10 to 1.

We know now that Hunter was duped.  Early’s men had been instructed to do everything possible to make their numbers seem larger, a ruse that paid off even better than expected.  Hunter, relying on inaccurate information, ignoring the status of the overall campaign, and overvaluing the importance of keeping his force at full strength, had based all of his subsequent actions on false foundations.  Today we would observe that he had succumbed to a kind of narrow framing, or the weighing of one’s own choices separately from the bigger picture.  Unfortunately for Hunter, the stakes of the engagement were not isolated, and his timidity helped the Confederacy cling to life for a number of months while freely operating in the important Shenandoah Valley corridor.



Behavioral economist Dr. Richard Thaler of the University of Chicago researches narrow framing, and was instrumental in classifying its character and causes.  In his 2015 book Misbehaving, he cites a number of diverse examples, including a staff lecture he gave to the executives of a large company in the print media industry.  Briefly summarized, the midlevel execs in the room were each presented with an opportunity that would either make a profit of $2 million or lose $1 million, each with a 50% likelihood.  Independently, the execs proved extremely risk averse, with only 3 of 23 taking the bet.

When the CEO in the back of the room was asked how many of the ventures he would accept, his answer was conclusive: all of them!  Astute statisticians can appreciate why…the expected net result of these independent bets would pay a tidy $500,000.  The midlevel execs were overly compartmentalized in their perception of the total risk level and unable to look beyond an immediate fear of losing “their” bet.  The CEO, meanwhile, viewed the risk-reward proposition across a broader spectrum and was happy to capitalize on a strong overall likelihood of success.



So how does narrow framing impact military command?  As Maj. Gen. Hunter’s unfortunate experience demonstrates, it is first important for commanders to understand not just their own circumstances, but how they fit into the larger picture.  A counterpoint to Hunter’s shortsightedness can be found at Gettysburg, specifically Joshua Chamberlain’s leadership of the 20th Maine at Little Round Top.  Chamberlain, in contrast to Hunter, knew the vital importance of his place in the overall Union line, and heeded at all costs his commanding officer’s admonition to hold his unit’s position.

Through charge after charge, the 20th Maine fought, finally counterattacking with bayonets drawn when ammunition was depleted.  This was more than just a demonstration of intestinal fortitude.  Chamberlain had rightfully elevated his perception beyond the narrow engagement with the Confederates assaulting his position, instead looking out and around at the bigger picture, and adjusting his risk calculation accordingly.  Had Chamberlain framed his win-loss proposition purely from the perspective of his own unit, his decision to spring headlong into the Confederate line would have been illogical; given the broader picture it was essential.

This highlights the second lesson of narrow framing: overall risk must be continuously recalculated when contemplating a new risk-reward proposition.  Rarely are these propositions as “all or nothing” in nature as Chamberlain faced.  In fact, commanders most often deal in incremental change.  Thus, it is important to remain continually mindful of how one’s decisions imperceptibly tip the scales over time toward or away from desired outcomes.  So too must the actions of one’s friendly forces be weighed, and in turn offset.

The final lesson on narrow framing is simple in theory but more challenging in execution: understand your biases and how they square with the reality of your circumstances.  The behavioral economics literature tells us that loss aversion is a stronger motivating factor than is the desire to gamble for favorable results.  Is this true for you?  Your boss?  Your adversary?  All are important to consider when seeking to optimize outcomes.  Imagine if the most innately talented baseball players among us acted on their “loss aversion” given a higher likelihood of failure (an out) than success (a hit).  For example, a 66% failure rate might seem like a discouraging figure, enough to consider taking up another sport.  In reality though, a batter hitting .333 would be an asset to most teams.  Thus, a 33% rate of return shouldn’t discourage participation.  Understanding biases and the extent to which they conform to the situation is essential to making optimal decisions.




The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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