Glass Half-Full: The Framing Effect

15.12.2017 |

Episode #4 of the course How cognitive biases are messing up your decisions by Abasi Latcham


Today, we’re going to talk about the framing effect.


What Is It?

The framing effect is changing the wording of a question to emphasize certain aspects to influence people’s decisions (despite the expected result remaining identical).

Time for a thought experiment, courtesy of Tversky and Kahneman. There has been an outbreak of a new and extremely deadly disease in a town of 600 people. You are in charge of dealing with the epidemic. Your top scientist tells you they have two possible treatments, but you can pick only one. Which do you choose?

• Treatment A: 200 people will live.

• Treatment B: There’s one in three chance all will live, with a two in three chance none will live.

If you’re like most people, you went with Treatment A. Now, roll back the hypothetical clock to the point where you need to decide again. This time, your top scientist describes the treatments thusly:

• Treatment A: 400 people will die.

• Treatment B: There’s a one in three chance none will die, with a two in three chance all will die.

Does Treatment B suddenly look more palatable? The treatment are the same across both scenarios (and A and B each have the same expected result), but simply changing the way they are phrased primes our brains to pay more attention to either the loss or the gain. And as we saw when we discussed prospect theory, we don’t treat equivalent gains and pains equivalently.



Time for bonus biases! The frequency illusion and the Baader-Meinhof effect suggest that once you learn about something, you start to see it everywhere. Will that happen now that you know about the framing effect?

Meat: Do you want beef that’s labeled as “90% lean” or “10% fat”?

Condoms: Would condoms still be as popular if instead of “98% effective,” they said, “2% babies”?

Social issues: Is drug addiction a law and order problem or a public health problem? Are refugees victims or “queue-jumpers”?

Fees vs. discounts: My local cafe charges a $0.50 fee if you don’t bring your own cup, and I can’t stand it. But if they reframed it as a $0.50 discount if you did bring your own cup, I wouldn’t mind as much. Same end price, different perception.

Taxes: Tax “relief” subconsciously frames tax as a negative, which poses a problem for left-leaning parties when proposing tax increases. But what if they framed their policies in terms of “tax justice” instead?



Pay attention to how issues and choices are being framed. Figure out if you are being primed to pay attention to certain aspects of an issue by how it is being portrayed. If you are, can you reframe the situation yourself to lead to more balanced or a more palatable outcome?

Tomorrow, we’re going to the realm of personal finance to discuss mental accounting.


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Recommended reading

“Queue Jumpers” and “Boat People”: The Way We Talk about Refugees Began in 1977


Recommended book

Choices, Values, and Frames by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky


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