The framing bias is when a person’s decision or choice among options is influenced by the way information is presented.
For example, if you were to sell a car for “$2999 – which is 50% off!” or “$2999 full price”, the people who thought it was 50% off may feel better about the purchase, even though the discount is fake.
Tversky and Kahneman (1981) are the most prolific researchers on framing effects, as well as many other cognitive biases such as the related concept of negativity bias.
In a series of studies, they were able to alter the decisions of participants based on presenting the same information differently, often by just changing one or two words in a sentence.
Their research demonstrated:
“…systematic reversals of preference based on variations in the framing of acts, contingencies, or outcomes” (p. 453).
Moreover, the effects were far from trivial:
“[The effects of framing bias] occur when the outcomes concern the loss of human lives as well as in choices about money; they are not restricted to hypothetical questions and are not eliminated by monetary incentives” (p. 457).
Framing Bias Examples
- Coach Kelly tells his team they are down 3 touchdowns…now the team feels hopeless; Coach Miller tells his team to just focus on getting one touchdown…the other 2 will come later. The team feels motivated.
- Choosing a particular brand of fruit juice because it is made from 10% real fruit, not realizing that means it is made from 90% water and chemicals
- Using a soft and soothing tone of voice compared to a harsh and aggressive tone is an example of auditory framing
- A restaurant takes close-up photos of its meals to make the portions appear larger; an example of visual framing
- Buying a package of ground beef that is labeled as 75% lean but passing on a package labeled as 25% fat
- Mrs. Williams conducts performance feedback to her staff and uses the term “areas of improvement” instead of “deficiencies” to identify what they need to work on
- Setting your best friend up on a date and describing him as having “high standards”, while describing a similar friend you don’t like as “picky and difficult”
- People will prefer a medical treatment described as 90% effective over one that is described as having a 10% mortality rate
- Seeing the glass as half-full or half-empty is an example of framing that can affect a person’s entire outlook on life
- Negotiating a plea deal by telling a defendant they could spend the next 10 years of their life in jail, or be out on parole in 3 years
1. Skydiving: Adventurous or Risky?
The framing bias can take the form of altering just a single adjective. It may be hard to believe, but using a particular word can affect how an entire message is processed.
Take skydiving for example.Objectively speaking, the odds of having a severe accident are the same no matter how the activity is described. However, using the word “adventurous” puts a positive spin on it and makes it sound thrilling and fun.
Using the word “risky” puts a negative spin on that very same activity. Instead of making it sound thrilling, now it sounds dangerous and maybe even deadly.
One word changes the way the whole activity is perceived.
Note: Framing Bias has a very similar premise as the base rate fallacy
2. The Process Approach
People in leadership positions often make use of the framing bias. The way a project is described can affect the mindset of staff and lead to completely different project outcomes.
For example, one leader may see her team struggling with the heavy demands of a challenging project. They are only a third of the way through, and already there are signs of frustration and burnout.
So, she decides to take a cue from framing research and create a context that instills hope. At her team’s next meeting, she explains that the initial stages were the toughest and that they have now gotten through the roughest 3 innings of a 9-inning game.
There’s still work to do, but the hardest part has passed.
By referring to the team’s struggles as in the past, she is resetting their mindset. By using a baseball analogy, she has created the feeling that there is light at the end of the tunnel.
3. Discounts and Big Numbers
Framing may be applied in marketing and advertising more than in any other profession. Ad campaigns routinely utilize framing tricks to manipulate consumers to perceive products/services in specific ways.
Here’s just one example:
Receive 1 dollar off a $10 item if you buy now.
Receive 10% off a $10 item if you buy now.
Which of those two ads is going to generate the most sales? The correct answer is ad #2.
The number 10 is bigger than the number 1 (yes, that is obvious). But the framing bias will make most consumers become more excited about getting 10% off because it just “seems like” a better deal than just $1 off. (For similar marketing tactics, see our article on the anchoring bias).
When a large corporation presents their quarterly earnings to investors, you can bet they make use of the framing bias.
The goal is to make the results sound as positive as possible.
Here’s an example of two possible ways to present results:
Q3 earnings per share (EPS) were $1.25, compared to predicted earnings of $1.30.
Q3 earnings per share (EPS) were $1.25, outperforming Q2 earnings of $1.22
Option number one sounds disappointing. Earnings were below predictions and make it sound like the company is struggling.
Option number two however, uses the term “outperforming” and uses a baseline number that makes the company look like it is in an upward trend.
5. Expanding Healthcare versus Raising Taxes
Politics has never been a sport for the faint of heart. At times it can be as ruthless as the gladiators of ancient Rome. Well, maybe not quite like that, but it’s a tough arena nonetheless.
When votes are on the line and political ideologies at play, politicians will make full use of framing.
For the party that is in favor of expanding healthcare downward for lower-income segments of the population, their campaigns will talk about saving lives and helping children.
For the other party that is against that agenda, they will speak about the need to raise taxes and taking money out of the pockets of everyday citizens.
Most people consider themselves to be intelligent and rational, capable of making decisions based on an objective analysis of the problem.
According to research by psychologists and cognitive scientists, that may not be entirely true. Just the simple switching of one adjective can have profound effects on people’s judgments.
Describing an event as either adventurous or risky can make it sound thrilling or life-threatening. An employee being told by a supervisor they have areas of improvement can be motivating. While at the same time, being told of deficiencies can be depressing.
The framing bias is powerful, yet most people are unaware of its influence.
Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Finkenauer, C., & Vohs, K. D., (2001). Bad is stronger than good. Review of General Psychology, 5(4), 323–370.
Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1981). The framing of decisions and the psychology of choice. Science, 211(4481), 453-458.
Beratšová, A., Krchová, K., Gažová, N., & Jirásek, M. (2016). Framing and bias: A literature review of recent findings. Central European Journal of Management, 3(2), 23-32. https://doi.org/10.5817/CEJM2016-2-2
Janiszewski, C., Silk, T., & Cooke, Alan D. J. (2003). Different scales for different frames: The role of subjective scales and experience in explaining attribute-framing effects. Journal of Consumer Research, 30(3), 311–325.