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Aging
What’s in the Swamp of...
Swamp Drop Game
Members of the public bring a deeply entrenched set of default assumptions to bear on the ways they think and reason about social issues, including aging. These widely shared assumptions, called “cultural models,” function like cognitive shortcuts that help people process incoming information quickly. But this efficiency comes at a cost, because some of these models lead to inaccurate interpretations of the problem and its solutions.  FrameWorks uses the metaphor of “the swamp” to talk about the rich mental ecosystem of cultural models that informs the ways we all see the world. To frame messages effectively, it’s important to know what’s in the swamp—which models hamper people’s understanding and which support it. With this knowledge, you can ensure your communications avoid unproductive models in the swamp that, like alligators, can eat your message.  Cultural models are activated by language cues, so choosing helpful cues is a key part of effective framing. The following slides showcase real communications materials about aging. See if you can identify which cues may trigger unproductive (or productive) cultural models. Use this map of the swamp as your guide. Pro Tip: Keep a copy of the swamp graphic close at hand and use it to remember which models to activate—and which to avoid—in your communications.  As you read through the following examples, look for words and phrases that may trigger different cultural models in the swamp. Which parts of the swamp are these examples likely to activate? Let’s begin. Read this excerpt taken from an opinion piece about using art to support healthy aging. What do you see here that may activate the public’s “swampy” thinking?
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“One thing I learned from the week I spent as a journalism fellow at the 68th annual scientific meeting of the Gerontological Society of America: Our nation is not ready for the silver tsunami headed our way. It was grim hearing learned scientists talk about their research into aging. It was also personal. I'm 63. Like my fellow baby boomers, I have serious skin in this game. We fear a decline that could cost our children far too much in money, time, and emotional investment. But one theme sparkled above all the discussions about chronic illness, isolation, poverty, and depression. Creativity does not dim in old age.”
What cultural models might “eat“ this message?
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This piece is about the role of art and other creative endeavors in supporting healthy aging. However, several language choices in this excerpt hinder rather than advance this message. Words like “grim” and “fear,” and even the commonly used metaphor of “the silver tsunami,” cue up the public’s deeply embedded perception that aging is inherently negative.  This model of aging encompasses the belief that getting older is a process of deterioration and loss of control. The excerpt’s references to “decline” and to problems like “chronic illness, isolation, poverty and depression” reinforce these models and feed the public’s sense of determinism—the idea that little can be done to improve outcomes. They also undermine the author’s message about the positive aspects of aging. In other words, this author’s message is not likely to make it through the swamp alive.
“One thing I learned from the week I spent as a journalism fellow at the 68th annual scientific meeting of the Gerontological Society of America: Our nation is not ready for the silver tsunami headed our way. It was grim hearing learned scientists talk about their research into aging. It was also personal. I'm 63. Like my fellow baby boomers, I have serious skin in this game. We fear a decline that could cost our children far too much in money, time, and emotional investment. But one theme sparkled above all the discussions about chronic illness, isolation, poverty, and depression. Creativity does not dim in old age.”
The list of major global hazards in the 21st century has grown long and familiar. It includes the proliferation of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, other types of high-tech terrorism, deadly super viruses, extreme climate change, the financial, economic, and political aftershocks of globalization, and the violent ethnic explosions waiting to be detonated in today's unsteady new democracies. Yet there is a less-understood challenge—the graying of the developed world's population—that may actually do more to reshape our collective future than any of the above. Over the next several decades, countries in the developed world will experience an unprecedented growth in the number of their elderly and an unprecedented decline in the number of their youth. The timing and magnitude of this demographic transformation have already been determined. The 21st century's elderly have already been born and can be counted—and their cost to retirement benefit systems can be projected.
And how about this excerpt? What words do you see that may activate an unhelpful cultural model? 
The cues in this passage are likely to activate a deep sense of fatalism and crisis by linking aging with catastrophic problems like war, climate change, and financial collapse. Neutral phrases like “demographic transformation” or “reshape our collective future” channel thinking in a more productive direction, but these cues are overwhelmed by the fatalism embedded in the litany of social problems. Rather than inspiring people to take action, triggering the Fatalism model leads them to conclude that our social problems are too big to fix.
“The list of major global hazards in the 21st century has grown long and familiar. It includes the proliferation of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, other types of high-tech terrorism, deadly super viruses, extreme climate change, the financial, economic, and political aftershocks of globalization, and the violent ethnic explosions waiting to be detonated in today's unsteady new democracies. Yet there is a less-understood challenge–the graying of the developed world's population–that may actually do more to reshape our collective future than any of the above. Over the next several decades, countries in the developed world will experience an unprecedented growth in the number of their elderly and an unprecedented decline in the number of their youth. The timing and magnitude of this demographic transformation have already been determined. The 21st century's elderly have already been born and can be counted–and their cost to retirement benefit systems can be projected.”
The “alligator” in the swamp here is Health Individualism—the assumption that healthy aging depends solely or mostly on a person’s intrinsic motivation to be healthy and well. Inviting people to “practice healthy aging” by following “tips for better aging” reinforces the public’s belief that health is the result of good or bad personal choices. Such cues limit people’s understanding of the social factors that determine aging outcomes and the collective or system-level interventions that can improve the conditions that affect people’s wellbeing as they age.  Because this piece is silent about how contextual factors, like access to healthy food or adequate medical care, support healthy aging, it limits the range of solutions available to the public. Without helpful cues, people have difficulty imagining solutions beyond encouraging individuals to make better choices or providing them with more education and information. Policies, programs, and other system-level solutions become “hard to think” and, therefore, hard to support.
Seniors face negative age-based stereotypes in a variety of settings, and the workplace is an area where ageist views can negatively impact older adults both emotionally and financially. A new study analyzed approximately 400 studies of workplace performance in older adults and found that almost all negative age-based stereotypes are completely baseless. The study, published in Personnel Psychology, examined some of the most common negative stereotypes of older workers that impact workplace interactions, promotions, and other factors that can affect an employees quality of life. The six stereotypes the researchers chose to focus on were: when compared to younger employee’s, older workers are less motivated, less willing to engage in training and career development programs, more resistant to change, not as trusting, more likely to experience health problems that affect their work, and more vulnerable to work–family conflicts.
Let’s look at one last example. This one is about workplace discrimination.  Take a moment to read it and look for cues that are likely to activate the public’s swampy thinking.
Great work! Now that you have a sense of how the cues in a message can activate unproductive cultural models, you are one step closer to changing the conversation about aging. Navigating the “swamp of cultural models” means choosing language in your own communications that (1) avoids reminding people of the unproductive ways they already think about aging and (2) redirects them to a better, more accurate understanding of the problem and its solutions.  Framing tip: Keep a copy of the swamp graphic and glossary handy when preparing your own communications. Use them as guides to what to say and what to leave unsaid to make your messages more effective. 
Conclusion
The public also shares a belief that growing older means entering a phase of decreasing financial and physical self-sufficiency and dependency on others. In this excerpt, phrases like “cost our children far too much in money, time, and emotional investment” channel thinking unproductively toward this Dependency model. This default, coupled with people’s belief that aging is a private family matter, makes it difficult for people to see aging as an issue that affects us all. That, in turn, limits their ability to envision structural solutions—policies, programs, and initiatives that support healthy aging—that can improve outcomes.
“One thing I learned from the week I spent as a journalism fellow at the 68th annual scientific meeting of the Gerontological Society of America: Our nation is not ready for the silver tsunami headed our way. It was grim hearing learned scientists talk about their research into aging. It was also personal. I'm 63. Like my fellow baby boomers, I have serious skin in this game. We fear a decline that could cost our children far too much in money, time, and emotional investment. But one theme sparkled above all the discussions about chronic illness, isolation, poverty, and depression. Creativity does not dim in old age.”
Several cues in this passage activate the Us vs. Them cultural model. For example, repeated third-person references (“their elderly,” “their youth,” “their cost”) perpetuate the public’s habit of thinking about older people as a separate group—as “them.” The final sentence, “The 21st century’s elderly have already been born and can be counted—and their cost...projected,” amplifies Us vs. Them thinking by turning an entire sector of the population into a problem. These ways of talking dehumanize and “other” older people, making it difficult for people to see the need to address the challenges of aging—and improve outcomes for all—at a collective level. 
“The list of major global hazards in the 21st century has grown long and familiar. It includes the proliferation of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, other types of high-tech terrorism, deadly super viruses, extreme climate change, the financial, economic, and political aftershocks of globalization, and the violent ethnic explosions waiting to be detonated in today's unsteady new democracies. Yet there is a less-understood challenge–the graying of the developed world's population–that may actually do more to reshape our collective future than any of the above. Over the next several decades, countries in the developed world will experience an unprecedented growth in the number of their elderly and an unprecedented decline in the number of their youth. The timing and magnitude of this demographic transformation have already been determined. The 21st century's elderly have already been born and can be counted–and their cost to retirement benefit systems can be projected.”
Unframed statistics like this one—about the prevalence of multiple chronic conditions among older Americans—leave people to fill in context or explanation on their own, with whatever default interpretations spring to mind. In this case, members of the public are likely to assume that the multiple chronic conditions faced by 61 percent of older Americans are due to poor lifestyle choices (Health Individualism) or are the inevitable consequences of getting older (Determinism and Fatalism).  To avoid this trap, strategic framers wrap data in frames that provide people with the context they need to understand the data in the way that experts do. Good framing can steer the conversation away from individuals (e.g., their food and exercise choices) and toward policies and systems that can support healthy aging (e.g., access to healthy food, safe places to walk, etc.). 
If you don’t believe it, don’t repeat it! Discrimination against older people is seen by experts as a major social concern but is largely invisible to the US public. Not all ways of bringing attention to the issue, however, lead to public support for needed changes. In this passage, the author uses valuable communications space to list inaccurate stereotypes about older workers that lead to ageism. Repeating myths reinforces them because our brains are wired to privilege what we already believe over new, competing information that doesn’t fit our existing understanding about how the world works. This passage is also likely to activate fatalistic or crisis-oriented thinking through its repetitive use of negative words, leading people to disengage.  Additionally, reminding the public of biases against different social groups reinforces Zero-Sum Thinking—the common belief that groups must fight over scarce resources. A more effective strategy to counter ageism and workplace discrimination is to explain how it works, why it is problematic, and how it can be solved.
“Seniors face negative age-based stereotypes in a variety of settings, and the workplace is an area where ageist views can negatively impact older adults both emotionally and financially. A new study analyzed approximately 400 studies of workplace performance in older adults and found that almost all negative age-based stereotypes are completely baseless. The study, published in Personnel Psychology, examined some of the most common negative stereotypes of older workers that impact workplace interactions, promotions, and other factors that can affect an employee’s quality of life. The six stereotypes the researchers chose to focus on were: when compared to younger employees, older workers are less motivated, less willing to engage in training and career development programs, more resistant to change, not as trusting, more likely to experience health problems that affect their work, and more vulnerable to work–family conflicts.”