The framing effect: how the way information is framed impacts our decisions

Reading time: 6 minutes

Do you prefer your yoghurt with 10% fat or 90% fat-free? Should the label on your disinfectant say it kills 99% of germs, or that it only spares 1% of them? Marketers know which framing will result in more sales. This is called the framing effect: a cognitive bias where people decide on options based on whether they are presented in a positive or negative way.

Why does it matter? Well, the framing effect is considered one of the largest biases in decision making, particularly in important areas such as health care and financial decisions. Without knowing it, many of your decisions have been impacted by this cognitive bias over the years. Let’s have a look at how it works and how you can manage it.

How framing influences our decisions

As Professor Pooya Tabesh from the University of St Thomas explains, the “framing effect occurs when decision makers choose inconsistent solutions for identical problems based on the way the problems are presented to them.”

In 1981, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman conducted a study to explore how different phrasing affected people’s choice in a hypothetical life and death situation. Participants in the study were asked to choose between two treatments for 600 people afflicted with a deadly disease. The first treatment was predicted to result in 400 deaths, whereas the second treatment was predicted to save 200 lives.

Framing Effect - Treatment Options

As you can see, both options would actually result in the same number of hypothetical patients who would live or die, but Tversky and Kahneman did not simply explain the two treatments as described above: they presented each option either with a positive framing (how many people would live) or a negative framing (how many people would die).

Pay close attention to the language used by the researchers: the positive framing focuses on how many people may live, while the negative framing focuses on how many people may die — but the result is exactly the same.

So what did the researchers find? The first treatment was chosen by 72% of participants when it was presented with a positive framing, which dramatically dropped to 22% when the very same choice was presented with a negative framing. This is the framing effect at play.

Examples of the framing effect

There is lots of research supporting the existence of the framing effect, whether it impacts our personal or professional decisions.

  • Political views. In his book The Psychology of Judgment and Decision Making, Scott Plous explains how framing political views can impact our choices. In a survey, 62% of respondents disagreed with allowing “public condemnation of democracy”, but only 46% agreed it was right to “forbid public condemnation of democracy” — even though both options essentially say the same thing.
  • Time and money management. The framing effect can also impact the way we manage our time and our money. A study found that 93% of students were registered early when presented with a penalty fee for late registration, versus only 67% doing so when it was presented as a discount for early registration.
  • Economics. Research suggests that More people will support an economic policy if the employment rate is highlighted (“10% employment rate”) than when the unemployment rate is emphasised (“90% unemployment rate”).

As you can see, the framing effect is everywhere. But the good news is: it’s possible to alleviate its impact so you can make better, more educated decisions.

How to manage the framing effect

As often, knowledge and awareness are powerful tools to deal with cognitive biases. Professor James N. Druckman from the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University explains that “some widely known framing effects greatly diminish and sometimes disappear when participants are given access to credible advice about how to decide.” You can apply these simple strategies order to manage the framing effect:

  • Consider the current frame. If you are shopping for a product, read the marketing material and be aware of the language used to frame its benefits. Ask yourself what the marketer is trying to convey. You can also apply this strategy to your own statements. Are you unconsciously framing your position in a positive or a negative way? At this stage, it’s all about making a conscious effort to be aware of the current framing.
  • Reverse the frame. A simple exercise is to take the way a statement is currently framed, and to reverse it. This technique is called reversal. Take the current frame and state it in the opposite way. For instance, “this product removes 90% of stains” can become “this product leaves 10% of stains”; “
  • Reframe the options. Not all decisions are binary. Sometimes, reversing the frame leaves out potential ways of considering your options. In addition to simply reversing the frame, consider additional, more complex alternatives. Would this option result in a loss, a gain, or maybe a neutral impact? Maybe some aspects are positive, but others negative? Which aspects really matter in the case of that particular decision?
  • Think like an outsider. It may be helpful to take an outside view to be as impartial as possible and avoid overconfidence when reframing your options. What would one of your friends or colleagues do? What if you weren’t personally impacted by the decision?
  • Take your time. Studies show that thinking fast increases your likelihood to fall prey to the framing effect. Be slow and deliberate in the way you consider your options, especially for important decisions.

It’s also good practice to reflect on your past decisions. Consider whether the way you framed your options was the most efficient one; whether you missed alternative frames; and whether you may frame similar options in a different way in the future.

Remember that the framing effect is one of the largest biases in decision making — it’s okay if you fall prey to it from time to time. Just learn from the experience and try to think more deliberately about your options the next time you face an important decision.