The Framing Effect: How Your Cognitive Bias Influences Your Every Decision

The framing effect subconsciously forces you on a daily basis to choose an option with a positive connotation, although both provided options are the same.
framing effect

The eternal unanswered question, “Is the glass half full or half empty?” is undoubtedly one you’ve heard before. Now, imagine you are in a desert, dying of thirst.

A genie miraculously arrives and presents you with an option between two glasses of water. It describes one as “half empty” and the other as “half full.”

Even if you know logically that both glasses have the same amount of water, your response would probably be different.

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The framing effect, a prevalent cognitive bias, is to blame for this.

What is the framing effect?

The framing effect describes a situation where a person is faced with a choice between two identical options. It shows that they are more likely to choose the one that is “framed” or described in positive terms than the one described in negative terms.

1024px Framing effect illustration
Framing effect illustration by Mushki Brichta under CC BY-SA 4.0

It is considered to be one of the most important biases in decision-making and has been observed in a wide variety of contexts, including political messaging, healthcare, consumer choice, and time and money management.

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How does it work?

In a previous paper, Kahneman and Tversky put forth the idea of “prospect theory,” which holds that we frequently weigh potential advantages and losses while making decisions and that the prospect of losing something causes us much more pain than the chance of getting something. As a result, we are more inclined to wish to prevent losing money than to make a similar profit. Furthermore, a potential loss is preferable to a certain loss, and a certain gain is preferable to a likely gain.

Flow Chart of the Sunk Cost Fallacy
Flow Chart of the Sunk Cost Fallacy by U3172958 under CC BY-SA 4.0

The Asian Disease scenario

A study about the framing effect was first demonstrated by Israeli psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky.

In the study published in 1981, the duo asked two separate groups of college students to imagine a fictional scenario where a rare and virulent disease outbreak will affect 600 people. The dilemma was known as “The Asian Disease Problem.”

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1. The first group of students was presented with a “gain frame” that focused on the positives:

· Option A) 200 people would be saved, or

· Option B) You have a 33% chance that 600 individuals would be saved and a probability of 2/3 nobody would be saved

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2. The second group of students was presented with a “loss frame” that focus on how many people will “die”:

· Option A) 400 people will die, or

· Option B) You have a 33% (1/3) chance that nobody would die and a 66% (2/3) chance that all 600 people will die. 

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What the researchers found

Although both formulations of option A suggest that 200 people live and 400 people pass away, just 22% of the second group of college students chose option A when it was stated more negatively, whereas 72% of the first group did.

Hence, Kahneman and Tversky discovered that using more positive language when describing a scenario will persuade more individuals to choose it than using more negative language when describing the same scenario.

The researchers came to a more complex conclusion about human psychology

Most people will avoid risk and select the option that ensures a favorable outcome when they are given two options that are both phrased in positive terms, as was the case with the study’s initial group of college students.

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On the other hand, when people are presented with two options that are both framed with negative languages, like the second group of college students in the study, most will be more open to risky choices, selecting the option that offers a possibility of a good outcome (option B: You have a 33% chance that no one will die and a 66% chance that all 600 people will die) rather than the choice that assures a negative outcome (option A: 400 people will die). 

Why care about the framing effect?

We are particularly susceptible to the framing effect because we are lazy thinkers and choosing a certain gain requires less cognitive effort than choosing one that is risky.

The cognitive work required in choosing between a certain loss and a risky loss is the same. Additionally, because there is no prospect of a positive outcome, selecting a certain loss over a hazardous loss might be more emotionally draining.

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Since we can only shift focus to and use a limited amount of information at one time, we naturally prefer the option that will use the least resources and is the least stressful. Regrettably, this choice won’t always be the best.

We are obviously unique creatures and handle decision-making differently.

Use of framing effects

Clothing stores – Many businesses use the framing effect to their advantage in their advertising campaigns. For instance, the large signs clothing stores put in their windows or online will announce things like “Everything is 30% off!” instead of saying, “Pay 70% of the full price for everything!” Companies prefer the earlier style of phrasing since it emphasizes a savings opportunity for the customers (positive framing). The latter concentrates on how much the client owes (negative framing).

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Politicians and political candidates – To showcase their accomplishments and persuade others to vote for them, politicians and political candidates frequently use positive framing in their speeches.

For example, they may employ positive framing while summarizing data on military operations. Politicians typically focus on the harm that was done to the enemy rather than how many US soldiers died in a particular fight. Politicians essentially focus on what has been accomplished rather than what has been lost.

They could also benefit from the framing effect by emphasizing the employment rate growth rather than the unemployment rate reduction in their reporting. This decision highlights their role in promoting more of a positive thing (employment) rather than their fight to lessen a negative thing (unemployment).

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Age has also been proven to increase the framing effect

Small children are less affected by the framing effect than older children, who, in turn, are less affected than adults. Additionally, older persons are more susceptible to persuasion than younger adults.

How to avoid framing effect

The only way to prevent this bias, like most others, is to use your critical thinking skills. Don’t rush yourself; instead, take your time and carefully consider the information being provided.

Other approaches include:

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· Mentally restating the facts in an opposing manner.

· Seek help from specialists.

· Make an effort to defend your decision.

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· Try to defend your choice.

Final reflection

Keep in mind that everyone has fallen victim to the framing effect at some point. The main thing is to learn from your errors and make better decisions the next time you have to make a big choice.