The Model of Frame Selection (MFS) is a theory of action that builds on the classical sociological notion of the definition of the situation and the idea of variable rationality. The model focuses on how actors interpret situations, which scripts of action they activate, and which actions they perform. In all these processes, actors can make deliberate reflected choices, but if strong emotions, normative beliefs, or unquestioned routines have been activated, may also ignore objectively existing alternatives or incentives. Building upon and formalizing insights gained in cognitive social psychology, the MFS explains under which conditions these different modes of behaviour are to be expected.

The MFS integrates crucial insights from different social science traditions into one analytical model. In doing so, the theory not only provides the grounds for overcoming limitations of existing rational choice and normativist-culturalist approaches but also allows derivation of new hypotheses.

The MFS allows researchers to ask in which respects the definition of the situation (frame selection), the selection of a script, and action selection result from an automatic-spontaneous process of spreading activation (as-mode) or from reflected choice (rc-mode):

Source: Figure from Kroneberg 2014: p. 101.

Table 1 lists a selection of empirical studies that have applied the theory to gain new insights and resolve longstanding debates between rational choice and normativist-culturalist approaches across a wide variety of fields.

TABLE 1: A selection of applications of the Model of Frame Selection

AUTHOR(S) YEARAreaMain findings
Nauck 2007fertility (country comparison)The effects of individual resources, opportunities, and the value of children on individual fertility decisions vary with the state of the demographic transition: Incentive effects are much greater in transitional societies than in societies where the fertility decline is more or less completed. Cross-national differences in fertility rates seem to be related to culturally supported, ‘institutionalized’ routine solutions.
Eckhard 2010*, Eckhard 2014fertilityThe well-known finding of lower fertility rates among highly educated women (due to higher opportunity costs) does not hold for couples with a family-oriented framing of their relationship. The latter is operationalized by the presence of three indicators: Respondents not only perceive of their relationship as intact and feel a very close emotional attachment, but also do not fully agree with the statement that sexuality plays a big role in their relationship. This third component of the frame differentiates family-oriented relationships from mere partner-oriented, probably more hedonistic ones.
Kroneberg, Heintze, Mehlkop 2010crimeThe willingness to engage in tax fraud and shoplifting depends on the expected costs and benefits of these acts, but only among individuals who do not feel bound by moral norms. Where norms have been strongly internalized, and in the absence of neutralizations, instrumental incentives are irrelevant.
Kroneberg, Yaish, Stocké 2010
altruismIn WWII, only potential rescuers with weak prosocial orientation based their response to a request to help Jews on how risky they perceived rescuing to be. Individuals with strong prosocial orientation helped independently of this incentive.
Mayerl 2010*
donationsThe impact of attitudes on donating to social charity organizations is greatest if the attitudes’ temporary accessibility is high (indicated by frequent conversations about donating money) and the motivation to reflect is low (indicated by a relatively high equivalent income).
Hunkler & Kneip 2010*
stability of partnershipsEvents such as drug problems, betrayal, and violence do not always reduce the stability of partnerships. Rather, their impact depends on the extent to which partners personally think of them as serious problems for a relationship and on whether respondents frame their relationships as an indissoluble institution.
Stocké, Yaish, Kroneberg 2010educationIn choosing among secondary school tracks for their children in Germany, parents with high aspirations and, thus, a strong self-commitment to realize high educational degrees, largely ignore their children’s risk of school failure, whereas those with lower ambitions take it strongly into account.
Best & Kneip 2011environmental behaviorThe change from a drop-off system of household waste recycling (with containers at street corners) to a curbside recycling scheme (being less costly in terms of time and effort) increases participation rates. However, the average incentive effect tends to be weaker among individuals with strong environmental concern (not significant).
Weingartner 2012*
cultural consumptionHighbrow cultural consumption follows cultural preferences and opportunities but these incentive effects are smaller when individuals possess strongly internalized cultural orientations and routines.
Rompf 2012trust (interpersonal; experimental economics)
In an investment game, strong norms of reciprocity and a cooperative framing via situational cues suppress the negative stake size effect on trust.
Beier 2016*youth violenceAnalysis of a factorial survey reveals the expected interplay of personal violence-legitimizing norms, prevalence of these norms in the classroom, and situational provocation with regard to violent intentions (as well as the time respondents needed to answer the factorial survey). Adolescents who hold strong violence-legitimizing norms react violently towards strong provocation – irrespective of classroom norms. In ambivalent situations, they react only violently if such norms are also prevalent in the classroom. In comparison, adolescents who normatively reject violence do not react violently in ambivalent situations. However, when strongly provoked, they might turn to violence in classrooms in which violence-legitimizing norms are prevalent.
Beier 2017alcohol consumptionUsing five waves of space-time budget data, this study investigates the relevance of peer presence and behavior on adolescents’ alcohol consumption at a situational level. Multilevel models, predicting the probability of alcohol consumption in a given hour, show that adolescents holding strong moral convictions against alcohol consumption are basically immune to situational peer effects, even during unstructured and unsupervised activities.
Rompf, Kroneberg, Schlösser 2017trust (institutional)Analysis of survey data on recycling behavior in four countries (Sweden, Denmark, US, UK) show that high levels of institutional trust can suppress the inhibiting effect of individual costs on cooperation in a collective action dilemma.
Arránz Becker & Lois 2017*fertilityEconomic factors that determine the opportunity costs of children become more relevant for fertility decisions, as denominational and religious bonds decline in a secularized society such as Germany.
Esser 2018*public goods provision (experimental economics)Re-analyzing data from experiments that follow the seminal study by Fehr and Gächter (2000, AER), the author shows that the introduction of sanctions has a different effect on cooperation than the removal of sanctions. This asymmetry is difficult to reconcile with prevailing interpretations of Fehr and Gächter’s results in economics and provides suggestive evidence for the relevance of priming and situational construal.

Note: *Article/book in German

The theory behind the model was initially developed by Hartmut Esser (1991, 2001) and subsequently further elaborated and formalized in my previous work (Kroneberg, 2005, Kroneberg, 2011).

For English-language expositions of the model, see Esser (2009), Kroneberg, Yaish and Stocké (2010), Kroneberg (2014), or Esser and Kroneberg (2015).

Esser (2001) and Kroneberg (2011) provide book-length treatments on the background and implications of the theory.

More recently, Andreas Tutić has embarked on the project to give the Model of Frame Selection an axiomatic foundation, to apply the theory to the game-theoretic study of strategic interdependence, and to provide more direct experimental evidence using lab experiments.

Further readings:

Esser, Hartmut, 2009: Rationality and commitment: the model of frame selection and the explanation of normative action. In: Cherkaoui, Mohamed and Peter Hamilton (eds.), Raymond Boudon: A Life in Sociology, Vol. 2, Part Two: Toward a General Theory of Rationality. Oxford: The Bardwell Press.

Esser, Hartmut and Clemens Kroneberg, 2015: An Integrative Theory of Action: The Model of Frame Selection pp. 63–85 In: Lawler, Edward J., Shane R. Thye, and Jeongkoo Yoon (eds.), Order on the Edge of Chaos: Social Psychology and the Problem of Social Order. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Kroneberg, Clemens, 2014: Frames, Scripts, and Variable Rationality: An Integrative Theory of Action S. 97-123 In: Manzo, Gianluca (ed.), Analytical Sociology: Norms, Actions, and Networks. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Kroneberg, Clemens, Meir Yaish, and Volker Stocké, 2010: Norms and Rationality in Electoral Participation and in the Rescue of Jews in WWII: An Application of the Model of Frame Selection. Rationality and Society 22: 3-36.

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