The framing effect is a cognitive bias where the way information is presented to us impacts our perception of it and its contents.
This cognitive bias, and its adjacent prospect theory, were both developed by Israeli psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky.
Whether or not we are aware of it, our overall impression of an item/object is impacted by:
- the way things are presented to us,
- the tone people use to relay information,
- the wording and phraseology used to describe things.
The framing effect exposes people’s implicit biases towards wording, phraseology and essentially how things are ‘framed’ or presented to us.
Scenario: Susan is shopping for groceries, though she has to be on the lookout for her blood sugar level when choosing which groceries to purchase. Susan has a chocolate craving. In the snack aisle she pursues the different chocolates: one is labelled as having ‘90% sugar-free’, whereas the other is described as having only ‘10% sugar.’ Susan picks the chocolate that’s 90% sugar-free over the one that contains 10% sugar.
Evidently, both packages describe the same amount of sugar within the product.
Susan, however, was influenced in purchasing the chocolate that was advertised as having 90% less sugar, as opposed to the one advertised as having only 10% sugar, because of how the information was framed.
This is a case in point of the framing effect’s influence on people’s consumer choices and decision-making.
Scenario: Max is near graduating, and is entering his final year of university. He wants to make sure he maintains his GPA, and so he is being especially particular about which classes he should enrol in, so as not to lower his GPA. As he considers which courses to enrol himself in, he sees that one of the classes 20% of the students got A’s. Max then looks at a different course and finds that 80% of the students did not receive an A. Max decides to enrol in the class where 20% received an A.
Again, in this scenario, there is no material difference between the two options being described.
Rather, the framing of the information about each course is what influences Max’s decision-making.
This shows how the framing effect is indeed a cognitive bias that influences our decisions even when it’s not truly reasonable.
The Prospect Theory, which was also developed by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky (in 1979), is another concept that looks at our ability to make decisions based on how information is provided to us.
Prospect Theory holds that people are more swayed to act by a potential loss than from a possible gain. For example, say you won 100 dollars. Then you lost 80 of the 100.
How would you feel? You’d probably feel you had a loss despite the fact that you actually gained $20.
Conversely, if you lost $80 and then won $100, you’d feel you had a net gain. Both are the same events, but they’re phrased in the inverse.
Similar to the framing effect, the prospect theory illustrates how our interpretation of the same information, albeit framed differently, compels us to choose one option over the other.
In a 1981 study conducted by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, they considered how the phrasing of the same information influenced different responses to a hypothetical life and death situation.
The study participants were asked to decide between two treatment options for a group of 600 people facing the same fatal illness.
The two options for treatment that were presented to the participants were phrased either in the negative (describing how many would die,) versus being phrased in the positive (how many would survive.)
Though the information presented is the same, 72% of the participants chose the first option treatment when it was framed in the positive over the negative.
This tells us that how the information is portrayed (or framed) makes a real difference on whether we pursue that choice or not.
As we have seen, the framing effect exposes a flaw in our ability to rationally decide and distinguish between choices that are, in fact, the same, though packaged differently. It’s how the decision has been ‘framed’ to us that impacts how desirable we find the options.
Understanding this aspect of human psychology is clearly important when it comes to fields like marketing and advertising.
Knowing the type of verbiage, syntax, and information to display in order to persuade people to purchase your products has much to do with the way the product is framed, just as much as what is contained in the product itself.
Moreover, the concern, in many cases, is how the information (or option) is presented relative to other, existing alternatives (as we saw earlier with how the percentage of sugar in products is displayed.)
Given what we know of the framing effect, we can see how it could impede a person’s ability to assess their options in situations like a plea bargain.
In general, when we are reasoning through our options, we attempt to weigh the risk vs. rewards, and from there, the choice would be clearer based on the individuals’ risk tolerance and level of aversion.
What the framing effect unearths is that we are, in fact, defective when it comes to reasoning through choices of risk and reward based on somewhat trivial details like how the information is relayed (relative to existing alternatives.)
A competent lawyer would hopefully recognize such framing techniques when it comes to plea negotiations; at least, we very much hope so.
In James Druckman’s article on the framing effect, a question he poses is how endorsements by credible sources can counteract the influence of the framing effect on decision-making (or counter the influence of the frame through which information is relayed.)
The experiment is similarly structured to Kahneman and Tversky’s experiment on the framing effect: the study subjects are told that there are 600 patients that have been diagnosed with a fatal disease.
A hypothetical cure for the disease has been discovered, and the information is similarly framed as ‘lives saved’ versus ‘lives lost’.
Druckman, in his experiment, included the variation where the information communicated was delivered by either Democrats or Republicans.
The results of the experiment found that when politics and political associations were introduced, the frame used had less significance and influence on the participants’ decisions.
8. The Formation of Political Preferences
It’s been recognized that the framing effect has implications on how citizens form their political preferences and opinions. As we saw before, the way that information is communicated by a political candidate (say they use phrasing like, ‘lives saved’ as opposed to ‘lives lost’) can impact a person’s politics in ways they may not themselves recognize.
Consequently, this raises deep worries about the credibility of our political preferences and alignments.
The framing effect points to the tenuousness of our political preferences and even our ability to be competent decision-makers more broadly.
James Druckman, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota, wrote an article on “The Implications of Framing Effects for Citizen Incompetence”. He concludes that we use frames in reasonable ways, though that we use frames (and that they exist in our reasoning) is taken for granted.
9. “The Foreign-Language Effect”
In a study by Keysar, et al., 2012 called “The Foreign-Language Effect: Thinking in a Foreign Tongue Reduces Decision Biases”, the question they ask is evident in the title. How does language impact or not impact the influences of the framing effect in our decision-making?
Surprisingly, what the study found was that when information is communicated in a foreign language, our decision-making biases are in fact reduced, and the ‘frame’ through which information is being presented is much less relevant.
Conversely, when information was presented in their first language or native language, people became worse at making sound decisions.
10. The Affect Heuristic
Adjacent to the framing effect, the affect heuristic points to an implicit bias we have towards our emotional state when making decisions.
The affect heuristic illustrates a version of the framing effect where the information presented appeals to emotions and therefore influences the decisions we make. Another way to understand this is by considering the affect heuristic as a kind of frame that’s used to deliver information.
11. The Framing Effect in Media
All media outlets, whether knowingly or not (to be sure, it’s intentional,) frame the news in ways that align with the media company and their politics. News networks frame information by prioritizing some information, say by spending more air time covering certain parts of a news story than other parts.
Say a crime took place, and a prime suspect has been identified.
Some news outlets might pay more attention to physical descriptors of the alleged suspect, like their background or race; whereas other media outlets could focus more on other information, like the location or facts of the crime.
This is important because it influences our emotional reactions to real-world events—which in turn, shapes our own views and opinions. That’s why it’s crucial to know about concepts like the framing effect!
12. Splitting the Difference
Let’s say you’re buying a car: The seller of the car knows it is worth $4000 but tells you it’s worth $5000. You buy it for $4500, thinking you got a bargain because the salesman framed the sale effectively.
Negotiations are a great place to see how the framing effect influences decision-making.
This is the reason why many successful business people and negotiators have their clients pay them “by the month.”
This framing will almost certainly lead to a higher monthly fee. You may even be paying more than if you had framed the negotiation as “a fee of $X per hour.”
13. Green vs. Energy Efficient
Advertisers are aware that the frame they use can influence consumers’ attitudes toward the product, as well as their buying decisions.
In one study, researchers found that when people were given information about an energy-efficient light bulb, they were more likely to purchase the product when it was framed as a “green” light bulb rather than an “energy-efficient” light bulb.
The “green” light bulb was framed as a way to help the environment. The “energy-efficient” light bulb was framed as a way to save money on electricity. When people were presented with information about the light bulbs in one of these ways, they were significantly more likely to purchase the product.
Tone of voice, body language, and the way a person carries themselves (and delivers information) all impact how the information is received by the listener.
Think of young kids being reprimanded by their parents. The content of what the parent is actually saying may be identical, but it’s the tone of voice the parent uses that relays the emotion and causes the reaction in their child.
Thus, your non-verbal communication is central in how you frame information.
15. The Framing Effect and Teenagers
Numerous research studies indicate that younger adults respond favorably when things are phrased in the positive as opposed to negative. For example, saying ‘75% fat-free’, as opposed to ‘with only 25% fat’, when they are one and the same thing, just framed differently.
Though unsurprising, it’s still intriguing that studies have shown teenagers have a tendency to be more susceptible to the framing effect.
As a result, society has decided that teenagers and children can’t do certain things because they’re more susceptible to framing effect manipulation at such a young age.
The framing effect is extremely common. When people make decisions, they don’t always do it based on facts or logic. They are influenced by the way information is presented to them. The framing effect shows us how much our views are influenced by the way information is presented to us. It’s important to be aware of this phenomenon so you can adjust or use it to your advantage.