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The Framing Effect - It's not what you say but how you say it

Updated on 9th December, 2022

The Framing Effect Definition

How easily swayed do you think you are when it comes to making decisions? Would the way information is phrased influence your choices?

According to research on the Framing Effect, it's likely you are much more susceptible to influence than you think.

You might've heard the classic proverb "Is the glass half-empty or half-full?" which explains how we can draw two different conclusions from the same concept or situation.

The Framing Effect, also known as the Framing Effect Bias, works similarly, where changing the way information is described can lead to different attitudes and decisions.

Is the glass half full or half empty
Is the glass half full or half empty

What is the Framing Effect?

The Framing Effect is defined as a cognitive bias in judgment and decision-making in which the way information is presented, or framed, can influence our choices more than the actual information itself. Put simply, phrasing information that involves a decision in either positive or negative terms leads us to prefer one option over another despite the outcomes being the same. If you're feeling confused, perhaps this example might help you to understand how the Framing Effect works. Your favorite store has announced a sale. Which of these two announcements do you think would attract more customers? The first announcement is a 25% discount off all store items, and the second announcement says customers will pay 75% of the original price of all items. The wordiness of the second announcement aside, it would be unsurprising if announcing that the 25% off discount announcement would attract more customers.

This is because the store has emphasized the positive aspects of the sale, which is the 25% off discount, instead of the negative aspect of still paying 75% of the original price. So, even though the discount is the same in both announcements, people are more likely to be attracted by the first announcement, which used positive framing, than the second, negatively framed announcement.

The Framing Effect can be seen in different variations according to what aspect of the information is manipulated. The example above uses a type of framing known as “attribute framing.” In attribute framing, a particular characteristic of an object or event is presented in either a positive or negative light. Other types of framing include goal framing and risky-choice framing. Goal framing is often used to persuade individuals to engage in a particular action or behavior. In the case of the Goal-Framing Effect, a positive frame would emphasize what you will gain from participating or engaging in something.

On the other hand, a negative frame would emphasize what you would lose if you chose not to do something. Let's say your boss wants you to work extra hours and offers overtime pay as an incentive. If they were to use a gain frame when making their request, they might say, "If you work these extra hours, you will get overtime pay." If they were using a loss frame, they might say, "If you don't work these extra hours, you will miss out on overtime pay." Goal framing often applies a timeframe to further motivate you, such as those “sign up before midnight to get this deal!” advertisements on store websites.

The Framing Effect is commonly used in marketing communication
The Framing Effect is commonly used in marketing communication

Risky-choice framing is the first type of framing effect to be studied and perhaps the most complicated. Typically, risky-choice framing frames choices in terms of gains and losses alongside the certainty or risk of these gains and losses. The gain frame, also known as the positive frame, will describe what will be gained from choosing this option. Imagine you are a student trying to choose between two classes: Class 1 and Class 2. Class 1 can provide sure outcomes regarding how many students will pass or fail the class. Class 2 can only offer some probabilities and has two uncertain outcomes. The school decides to use gain-framing when they release this information. They inform students that 40 of them will pass Class A and that Class B has a 40% chance of everyone passing the class and a 60% chance of failing it.

According to the Prospect Theory, proposed by researchers Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in 1979, students would be more likely to choose Class A than Class B. This is because people are loss-aversive, which means they are less likely to take a risk when there is a guaranteed gain compared to an option with a potential for loss. Class A offers a sure gain that 40 students will pass. On the other hand, class B has an uncertain gain (40% chance that everyone will pass) and a possible loss (60% chance that everyone will fail). Therefore, students will opt for the safer option, Class A. But what happens if the school decides to use a loss frame to describe the classes?

The Framing Effect in admission choices
The Framing Effect in admission choices

Unlike in the gain frame, students would be more likely to opt for the riskier option, Class B, despite Class A being the sure option. The decision students make here is opposite in the loss frame to the gain frame, despite the classes having the same outcome. Prospect theory refers to this as “choice reversal.” So why does this occur? Surprisingly, this is also due to loss aversion. Class A, where 60 students will fail, gives a certain, unavoidable loss of 60 students failing the class. Class B, however, allows avoiding a loss, where there is a 40% chance nobody will fail.

Confused? To put it more simply, prospect theory suggests that when asked to choose between a sure option and a risky option, peoples' choices will differ based on if the choices are framed in terms of gains or losses. People will choose a specific option if the options are presented with a gain frame because it guarantees a loss. If options are presented with a loss frame, people will choose the riskier option because it provides an opportunity to avoid a loss or to gain something.

Clearly, the Framing Effect has a wide range of implications for our decision-making in everyday life. This means it is essential we are aware of this effect so we can be mindful when making important decisions. Research suggests you can mitigate the Framing Effect by neutralizing a statement. If you see an advertisement, which is likely to use positive attribute framing to sell a product, consider what they are missing out on. Yes, that $700 has a 25% discount, but how much are you still paying when you purchase it?

History of the Framing Effect

In 1981, Daniel Kahneman (1934-Present) and Amos Tversky (1937-1996) highlighted the Framing Effect in their experiment, which is often referred to as the “Asian Disease Problem” on decision-making and heuristics, which are mental shortcuts we take to make decisions quickly. Kahneman and Tversky devised a risky-choice framing paradigm that involved a hypothetical scenario in which 600 people had been afflicted with a mysterious disease from Asia that was highly fatal. The first experimental condition used a gain frame (lives saved) and had two treatment options: Treatment A and treatment B. Treatment A presented an outcome of 200 lives saved, whereas treatment B involved a risky, uncertain outcome and was presented as having a 33% chance that all 600 people would survive, and a 66% chance that none of the 600 people would survive. In this condition, 72% of participants chose the sure option, treatment A, and only 28% chose the risky option, treatment B.

The second condition involved treatments with the same outcomes but instead framed these in terms of loss (lives lost). The sure outcome option, treatment C, predicted that 400 people would die. In the risky option, treatment D had a 33% chance that none of the 600 people would die and a 66% chance that all 600 would die.

Even though treatment A and treatment C had the same outcome, only 22% of participants chose the sure option of treatment C over treatment D, the riskier option. Their findings were in line with Prospect Theory, where participants chose the sure option (treatment A) over the risky option (treatment B) in the gain frame. In contrast, in the loss frame, they chose the risky option, treatment D, over the sure option, treatment C.

Kahneman and Tversky's risky-choice framing paradigm
Kahneman and Tversky's risky-choice framing paradigm

Case Examples of the Framing Effect

Case 1: A common example of attribute framing exists in the aisles of your local grocery store. Ever notice how healthy eating brands will market their product by how much fat, sugar, or salt, has been reduced from their product rather than mentioning how much remains in the food?

Most people would be more tempted to buy a product labeled as containing “35% less sugar” than “65% sugar,” even though both have the same amount of sugar. This is because the brand has used positive framing to draw your attention to the 35% less sugar rather than the fact it still has 65% sugar.

Helping to frame the text on food labels
Helping to frame the text on food labels

Case 2: Ever wonder why some politicians run smear campaigns? This is because the Framing Effect can affect polling. In 2011, George Bizer and his colleagues demonstrated that campaigns run by an already supported candidate which framed the opposition negatively, by comparison, were more effective at strengthening support and voter confidence than when the opposition was framed positively. This is surprising as it would be expected that framing the opposition in a positive light would sway voters towards supporting the opposition. However, according to inoculation theory, which McGuire and Papageorgis proposed in 1961, the mind works like an immune system when protecting attitudes and beliefs.

When these attitudes and beliefs are pre-exposed, they operate similarly to the body's immune response to weakened pathogens. This means that after this exposure, individuals will be more resistant to changing their negative attitudes and perceptions toward the opposing candidate. A real-world example of this can be seen in the 2016 presidential race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. From the outset of his campaign, Trump used slogans such as “crooked Hillary” and fueled allegations about Clinton's ethics and using a private email server when she was secretary of state. Yet, challenges to these claims and refuting evidence only seemed to strengthen support for Trump and opposition to Clinton.

The Framing Effect in convincing people to get screened
The Framing Effect in convincing people to get screened

Case 3: Want to try and spot goal framing in the real world? Have a look at the posters in your doctor's office. Often, these posters will try to convince you to participate in screenings for health issues such as cancer or sexually transmitted diseases. A gain frame poster would have a message such as "Regular screenings increase the chance of detecting cancer early." The aim here is to convince you to make regular appointments for cancer screening by highlighting the gain of an increased likelihood of detecting any cancer early, which would provide you with a better chance to fight it.

Interestingly, a study by researchers Beth Meyerowitz and Shelly Chaiken in 1987 suggests that applying a loss frame can be more effective in persuading people to get screening for cancer. They found that highlighting the consequences of not performing regular self-breast examinations, such as not detecting cancerous lumps or cells or detecting these later, were significantly more persuasive in convincing women to perform self-breast examinations than when self-examinations were framed in terms of their gains, which was earlier cancer detection.

A Beautiful Quote

“Framing effects can be very influential, and to the degree that if you can think of a task as close rather than distant, you're more likely to actually get it done.”

- James Surowiecki (2010)

Questions and Answers

Q1. How can the Framing Effect be used in advertising?

The nature of communication in advertising can affect the behavior of the buyer. Through the Framing Effect, a product or service can be framed as a gain (something that you could have and which people usually want certainty about) or as a loss (something you should not miss out on and which people are ready to take a risk for).

Q2. What are the types of Frames?

According to current psychology research, there are five ways in which information can be framed to send a different message from the same initial content. They are Gain Frames, Loss Frames, Temporal Frames, Value Frames, and Goal Frames.

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