Everything You Need To Know About The Framing Effect
Helen Lee Bouygues
June 8, 2023
Imagine your legislature is considering new laws that would require background checks and waiting periods for the purchase of a firearm. Proponents say the laws are needed to protect society and keep children safe. On the other side, opponents say the laws will infringe on the Constitutional rights of citizens.
Both sides are talking about the same proposed laws. Which side would you be more likely to support?
Oftentimes, we make decisions based on how information is presented, rather than the information itself. When that takes place, we may be falling prey to a cognitive bias called the framing effect.
What Is The Framing Effect?
The framing effect is a common form of cognitive bias. It occurs when people’s decisions are influenced by how information, judgments, or decisions are presented rather than the inherent qualities of the options themselves. The framing effect focuses on how information is “framed” or presented. It can also take place when different aspects are emphasized in order to evoke particular responses or interpretations.
In the example above, the proponents of gun laws have framed the debate as one over public safety and gun violence. Meanwhile, those opposed have framed it as a Constitutional rights issue.
Framing can take place whenever information is present. The nature of this bias makes it ubiquitous, with presence in everything associated with information from commercial activities to news, politics, and public affairs. It finds its way into virtually every decision that we make.
If our decisions depend on external information, then we become vulnerable to how it has been framed. Not to mention when features or aspects of the matter in question have been intentionally amplified or de-emphasized to appeal to the target group.
The framing effect is different from advertising. The latter is a deliberate communication strategy that promotes products, services, or ideas by shaping consumer behavior.
Origins of the Framing Effect
Psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman established the concept of the framing effect in 1981. They introduced the well-known “Asian Disease Problem” which became a classic example of the framing effect.
In this thought experiment, the U.S. was hypothetically preparing for an outbreak of an unusual disease from Asia that had infected 600 people. Researchers presented two programs that could potentially combat the outbreak to participants, only with different phrasing.
- Program A would save 200 of the 600 infected people;
- Program B had a 67 percent chance of not saving two-thirds of the infected population.
Even though both options have the same probability of outcome – 200 saved lives – participants overwhelmingly chose Program A. Then, Tversky and Kahneman reversed the framing of the programs: 400 people will die under Program A, and one-third of the infected will be saved with Program B. With the new framing, participants flip-flopped and opted for Program B. Tverky and Kahneman realized that programs “framed” as positive – i.e. saving lives – were more popular with the test subjects.
This idea is closely related to the Prospect Theory, which Tversky and Kahneman proposed in 1979. It states that people evaluate their losses and gains differently. Specifically, losses hurt more than equal gains please. Since then, the framing effect and the Prospect Theory have had wide applications in economics, finance, and psychology.
Types of Framing Effects
The presentation or framing of information can impact people’s decision-making and perceptions in different ways. That’s why researchers have identified several different types of this common cognitive bias.
Attribute Framing: Which would you rather eat, beef that is “75 percent lean” or has “25 percent fat”? Research shows that the former phrasing resulted in higher ratings of the product by participants. In attribute framing, people favor objects described in terms of positive or desirable attributes rather than those described with negative attributes.
Auditory and Visual Framing: These examples of framing effects are based on how people hear or see the information. Auditory framing can involve tone, inflection, and body language during the presentation of certain information. In visual framing, people make decisions based on the colors, fonts, and visual backgrounds of the information.
Value Framing: This type of framing effect occurs when we favor the option that appears to hold a higher value. We often assess the value of certain objects based on metrics we associate with high value, including numbers, which businesses capitalize in sales. For instance, it can be more impactful for businesses to frame a discount as “$200 off” rather than “20 percent off
How To Overcome The Framing Effect
Overcoming the framing effect can be challenging, as it is a deeply ingrained cognitive bias. However, here are a few strategies that can help individuals mitigate the impact of framing and make more informed decisions:
Increase Engagement: Research has shown that people who are more “involved” in an issue are less susceptible to the influence of the framing effect. That means engaging in more research and discussions, which helps us gain a more detailed and multifaceted view of the issue at hand. That will, in turn, guard us against any shallow framing techniques. By more thoroughly understanding every option, we would be in a better position to make a decision independent of framing.
Practice Reflection: Often we fall under the influence of the framing effect due to a cognitive bias called the “availability heuristic.” This occurs when we make decisions based on information that is immediately available to us, without pausing to evaluate or gather more reliable information. To overcome the framing effect, it is important to pause and reflect on the credibility of your information. It can also be helpful to consider whether the information can be improved with more time and research.
Seek Credible Advice: Research has shown initiating discussions with people who have more experience or expertise on the issue can be an effective solution. Due to their proficiency in the matter, they may be able to quickly identify the role of framing and phrasing in how the issue has been presented.
The Framing Effect and Critical Thinking
At the heart of all the preventative measures above is critical thinking.
When we buy into the framing of an issue, we are often making decisions based on our immediate feelings, emotions, and judgments. Many may know this as “emotional reasoning.” That is more than natural and arguably what makes us humans. However, we need to identify when framing has caused us to go off-track, into irrational, thoughtless, or even harmful territories.
We can certainly use the framing effect for good, as exemplified by many public health efforts and campaigns against tobacco. But more often than not, others can capitalize this cognitive bias of ours for economic or political gains. Critical thinking can help us identify when that happens, and what to do about it.
Critical thinking stimulates reflective, objective, and analytical thinking. That means thinking independently, managing emotions, and building our own reasoning to evaluate different situations. It also means seeking out diverse viewpoints and initiating discussions that expose us to ideas that are new, even sometimes uncomfortably so. It is a tool that we can use to dismantle intentional framing and influences and create our own methods and roadmaps to evaluate the issue at hand.
Helen Lee Bouygues is the president of the Reboot Foundation