What Cognitive Science Teaches about Contextualization

“Cognitive science” and “contextualization” –– two things that sound complicated but shape everything we do in ministry.

In  Theology in the Flesh, John Sanders explains the concept of “framing” with this sentence: “We never open our presents until the morning.” For most Americans, at least, those eight words make complete sense because they evoke a common “frame,” i.e. Christmas. Families have different traditions about when they open their gifts.

For more common yet frustrating examples, contrast how MSNBC and Fox News report the same story. Both websites “spin” their headlines by “framing” their stories in ways that conjure emotions and images that benefit their political perspective.

“Frames” include “words and phrases, but also pictures and gestures [that] trigger a setting of scenario, which brings to mind a particular meaning” (p. 38).

Everyday phrases like “He struck out” and “He scored” evoke sports frames. “The Promised Land” and “Babel” bring specific biblical narratives to mind. Frames provide the cognitive context that helps people make sense of information, hence “breakfast” etc. draws up an assortment of related concepts.

Sanders cites multiple studies that illustrate the powerful effect of framing (though usually going unnoticed). Below are my two favorite examples.

Example One: Crime

One study involved selected conceptual metaphors to see what impact they had in people’s reasoning about what to do about crime. Each set of participants were given identical information and statistics about crime in a city. The only difference in the reports was the subtle use of terms framing crime as either a virus or a beast. Those who read the report containing the virus metaphor decided the appropriate action was to cure the city by means of social programs, while those who read the report using the beast metaphor said that criminals should be tracked down and caged. Both groups claimed that their…

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