Have You Ever?

You’ve probably heard the expression, “Is the glass half empty or half full?” Now, imagine this scenario: you’re in a desert, dying of thirst. A genie magically appears and offers you a choice between two glasses of water, one which he describes as “half empty” and the other which he describes as “half full.” Even if you know logically that both glasses have the same amount of water, which glass would you prefer based on first instinct?

Here’s Why

The framing effect takes place when a person is faced with a choice between two identical options, except one is described with positive language indicating benefit or gain while the other uses negative language indicating detriment or loss. Typically, a person will choose the option that emphasizes positivity. For example, if we survey a crowd of people on whether they’d prefer a half empty glass of water or a half full one, the majority would prefer to have a glass that’s described as “half full” rather than the one that is described as “half empty,” even if the actual amount of water in either glass is the exact same. 

The Framing Effect

Framing Effect: When someone is presented with a choice between two options, they are more likely to choose the one that is “framed,” or described, in positive terms than the one described in negative terms. 

The History

A study about the framing effect was first conducted by psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman. In the study, Tversky and Kahneman told two separate groups of college students to imagine a fictional scenario in which a disease outbreak will affect 600 people. For the first group of students, the researchers told them to choose between two possible options that were both framed in the positive terms of “saving” lives: Option A) Save 200 people, or Option B) You have a 33% chance to save all 600 people and a 66% chance that no one will be saved. The researchers asked the second group of students to choose between essentially the same two options, but framed them in negative terms of how many people will “die”: Option A) 400 people will die, or Option B) You have a 33% chance that no one will die and a 66% chance that all 600 people will die. 

Even though both ways of phrasing Option A imply that 200 people live and 400 people die, 72% of the first group of college students chose Option A when it was phrased more positively while only 22% of the second group chose Option A when it was phrased more negatively. Thus, Tversky and Kahneman found that presenting a scenario in more positive terms will convince more people to choose it than presenting the same scenario with negative language – evidence of the framing effect.

Tversky and Kahneman then came to an even more complex conclusion about human psychology – when people are offered two choices that are both framed with positive language, like the first group of college students in the study, a majority will avoid risk and choose the option that guarantees a positive outcome (Option A: Save 200 people). On the flip side, when people are offered two choices that are both framed with negative language, like the second group of college students in the study, a majority 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 option that guarantees a negative outcome (Option A: 400 people will die). 

Why Care?

Many companies take advantage of the framing effect in their advertising campaigns. For instance, the large signs that clothing stores put in their windows will announce things like “Everything is 30% off!” rather than “Pay 70% of full price for everything!” The reason why companies choose the former method of phrasing is because it emphasizes a discount that will save the customer money (positive framing) while the latter focuses on how much the customer still has to pay (negative framing). 

Politicians and political candidates also frequently employ positive framing in their speeches in order to highlight their achievements and urge people to vote for them. One scenario where they might use positive framing is when summarizing war statistics: rather than dwelling on how many lives of US soldiers were sacrificed in a certain battle, politicians frequently focus on the damage that was dealt to the enemy. Essentially, politicians draw attention to what has been won rather than what has been lost. Another way that politicians take advantage of the framing effect is when they report how much they have increased the employment rate rather than how much they have decreased the unemployment rate – this choice emphasizes their role in spreading more of a positive thing (employment) rather than their struggle against reducing a negative thing (unemployment). 

    Learn More

    1. Cao, Fei, et al. “Framing Effect in the Trolley Problem and Footbridge Dilemma: Number of Saved Lives Matters.” Psychological Reports, vol. 120, no. 1, 2017, pp. 88–101. hollis.harvard.edu, doi:10.1177/0033294116685866.
    2. Gosling, Corentin J., and Sylvain Moutier. “Is the Framing Effect a Framing Affect?” Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology (2006), 2018, p. 1747021818796016. hollis.harvard.edu, doi:10.1177/1747021818796016.
    3. Huangfu, Gang. “THE INFLUENCE OF SOCIAL CUES ON FRAMING EFFECT.” Social Behavior and Personality, vol. 42, no. 3, 2014, pp. 371–377. hollis.harvard.edu, doi:10.2224/sbp.2014.42.3.371.
    4. Kim, Sunghan, et al. “Framing Effects in Younger and Older Adults.” The Journals of Gerontology: Series B, vol. 60, no. 4, July 2005, pp. P215–18. academic.oup.com, doi:10.1093/geronb/60.4.P215.
    5. Levin, Irwin P., et al. “Information Framing Effects in Social and Personal Decisions.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, vol. 24, no. 6, Nov. 1988, pp. 520–29. ScienceDirect, doi:10.1016/0022-1031(88)90050-9.

    Think Further

    1. What are some scenarios where you’ve experienced the framing effect in your own decision-making?
    2. Do you think the framing effect is a tool for good purposes or bad ones? Take a stance, and explain your reasoning. 
    3. How will you live your life differently now that you’re aware of how countless companies and politicians use the framing effect? 

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