Imagine that your doctor has decided that you need surgery. He could tell you that you have a 90 percent chance of surviving the operation. That probably sounds quite good. He could also tell you that you have a 10 percent chance of dying on the table. Even though those are the same odds, your response would probably be different. This is because of a common cognitive bias called the framing effect. Let’s take a look at how it works and what you can do to avoid it.
What is the framing effect?
The framing effect describes the fact that our choices from a set of alternative options tend to be influenced more by the presentation of those options than by the substance of the information.
The seminal study
The first people to demonstrate the framing effect were Israeli psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman. In a 1981 paper, they presented people with a dilemma that became known as “The Asian Disease Problem.” They asked their study participants to imagine that the US was preparing for the outbreak of a rare and virulent Asian disease, which was expected to kill 600 people. The participants were given two alternative treatments and asked to choose between them.
Half of the participants were presented with a “gain frame” that focused on the positives:
- Program A, in which 200 individuals would definitely be saved, or
- Program B, in which there was a probability of 1/3 that 600 individuals would be saved and a probability of 2/3 no-one would be saved
Half the participants were presented with a “loss frame” that focused on the negatives:
- Program C in which 400 individuals would definitely die, or
- Program D in which there was a 1/3 probability that nobody would die, and a 2/3 probability that 600 people would die
Since Programs A & C and B & D were logically equivalent, there should have been no difference in preference but, in the positive frame, 72% of the participants chose Program A rather than B, and in the negative frame, 22% preferred program C to D.
Three different types of frames have since been identified:
- Risky choice framing (as in the “Asian disease” scenario)
- Attribute framing, which involves an object and its attributes. In these cases, people are more likely to prefer the positively framed attribute. For example, consumers are more likely to choose beef described as “75% lean” to beef described as “25% fat,” and managers are more likely to allocate funds to R&D projects when the team’s past performance is framed in terms of successes rather than failures.
- Goal framing, in which people are urged to engage in some kind of desirable behavior and either the positive consequences of performing the behavior are emphasized, or the negative consequences of not performing the behavior are emphasized. In these cases, people are more likely to perform the desired behavior when the disadvantages of not performing it, rather than the advantages of performing it, are emphasized. For example, women are more likely to perform a breast self-exam when they are told that “women who do not do BSE have a decreased chance of finding a tumor in the early, more treatable stages of the disease” than when they are told that “women who do BSE have an increased chance of finding a tumor in the early, more treatable stages of the disease.”
The framing effect is considered to be one of the most important biases in decision-making and has been observed in a wide variety of contexts, including healthcare, political messaging, time and money management, and consumer choice.
How does it work?
In an earlier paper, Kahneman and Tversky proposed the concept of “prospect theory,” which is the idea that we tend to arrive at decisions by considering gains and losses, and that we find the thought of losing something significantly more painful than the idea of gaining something. Therefore we are more likely to want to avoid a loss than to secure an equivalent gain. Additionally, a certain gain is better than a probable gain, and a probable loss is better than a certain loss.
This means that, when something is framed positively and we are presented with a gain (saving lives), we become more risk averse. In the Asian Disease scenario, the prospect of definitely saving 200 lives is preferred to the riskier prospect of having a 1-in-3 chance of saving 600 lives. When something is framed negatively and we are presented with a loss (people dying), we become greater risk-takers; the certain loss of 400 lives is less acceptable than a 2-in-3 chance of 600 people losing their lives.
We are particularly susceptible to the framing effect because we are lazy thinkers and choosing a gain that is certain requires less cognitive effort than choosing one that is risky. Conversely, choosing between a certain loss and a risky loss requires the same amount of cognitive effort. Furthermore, choosing a certain loss over a risky loss can be more emotionally taxing because there is no chance of a good outcome. Since we can only attend to and use a limited amount of information at one time, we naturally prefer the option that will use the least resources and be the least stressful. Unfortunately, this option will not always be the best one.
Obviously, we’re all unique creatures and we all handle decision-making differently. For example, research using brain scans has shown that people who can regulate their emotions better are better able to limit the impact of the framing effect.
Personal circumstances are important, too. Research looking at plea bargaining suggests that being held in pretrial detention may increase a person’s willingness to accept a plea bargain because imprisonment—rather than freedom—will be the baseline from which they are working, and pleading guilty will be viewed as something that will cause their earlier release—a gain—rather than as an event that will put them in prison—a loss.
The framing effect has also been shown to increase with age: small children are less influenced by the framing effect than older children, who are, in turn, less influenced by the effect than adults. Older adults are also more likely to be influenced than are young adults.
How to avoid it
Like most biases, the only way to avoid this one is by using your critical thinking faculties. For a start, closely examine the information being presented, and don’t let yourself be rushed. Research shows that making quick decisions increases a person’s likelihood of falling prey to the framing effect. Instead, before making a choice, get as much information as you can about each option from a broad array of both critical and positive sources. Ask yourself about the motivation of the person giving you the choice. Consider other alternatives. There may be another option with a better outcome.
You can also try to “reverse the frame”—mentally rephrase the information to state it in the opposite way. For example, “this product kills 95% of germs” becomes “this product leaves 5% of germs.” Bear in mind, however, that negative frames are “stickier”: it’s more difficult to go from a negative frame to a positive one than it is to shift from a positive frame to a negative one. However, rephrasing the choice to include all of the information—”If Program A is adopted, then 200 people will live and 400 people will die”—has been shown to greatly reduce the framing effect.
Try to defend your choice. Research has shown that when people are asked to provide a justification for their decision, they tend to abandon the simpler heuristic processing mode and instead take a more systematic approach to decision making.
Ask someone else. Framing effects tend to be less influential when we are making decisions for other people, probably because we are less emotionally involved.
Look for expert advice. Research has found that framing effects are greatly reduced and sometimes even eliminated when people get advice from a credible source. Just be sure that the source of the expert advice really is credible; in the 1930s, for example, cigarette ads featuring “doctors” who were actually actors, some of whom were famous for playing doctors, managed to persuade a lot of people that smoking cigarettes would not be harmful to their health. Sadly, these were not credible sources.
In the end, just remember that everyone falls for the framing effect at some point or other. The key is to learn from your mistakes and to think more carefully about your choices the next time you have an important decision to make.