• Joumana Elomar

Framing Effect: How We Frame Information Changes What We Choose

Would you pick 90% fat free ice cream or 10% fat ice cream? Or choose a disinfectant that kills 98% of germs or keeps 2% of them? Stop and have a think about it. Ready? More often than not, marketers know exactly what our answers would be. The framing effect is one of biggest biases in decision-making. You'll notice that when we look carefully at these options, they're exactly the same.


The framing effect is when our decisions are influenced by the way information is presented to us. So basically, the way we word things changes what choices we might make. So why does it happen, what are the effects and what can we do about it?


Why It Happens

As we discovered in the guide for 'Breaking down biases': Every single second, the human body sends 11 million bits of information to the brain to process. Yet, according to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi we can consciously process a maximum of ~110 bits of information per second. Merely listening to a conversation consumes ~60 bits of information per second.


Looking at these numbers, we can't possibly process everything we're presented with. So to help us out, our brains look for shortcuts (or what psychologists call heuristics). It's theorised that these shortcuts help us survive allowing us to quickly process information and make snap decisions. But, these shortcuts can also lead us to make misinformed decisions.


The Effects

In 1981, prolific psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman conducted a seminal study concerning the framing effect. In this study, they asked students from Stanford University and the University of British Columbia to answer short surveys in a classroom setting. They were asked to imagine that the US was preparing for a disease which was expected to kill 600 people, and to choose between two programs to help handle the situation.


In Program A, 200 people would be saved. In Program B, there'd be a 1 in 3 chance of saving all 600 people but a 2 in 3 chance that no one would be saved (so 400 people will die). Before we continue, have a think about which options you would choose!


So we can see the options below:

You may have noticed that both programs result in the same number of deaths, but they're presented to us in different ways. Researchers found that 72% of participants chose Program A so the positive framing i.e. "Save 200 lives", which dramatically drops to 22% when the same choice is presented with a negative frame i.e. "400 people will die". So even though the outcomes were exactly the same, more people chose the positive option. This is framing for us. So tying it together, it seems:

  1. We tend to prefer positive frames

  2. We tend to want to avoid losses

So do we manage this effect?


Practical Strategies

While the framing effect can affect us all, here are some ways we can minimise it:

  1. Consider the frame. Before you make a call, stop and consider the frame. Is it a positive frame? A negative frame? A loss frame? A gain frame? Different frames pull us in different ways, so stopping to consider what they are can help us decide whether we're being swayed or making a logical decision.

  2. Flip the frame. A simple technique for making it easier to weigh up options is to reverse it. e.g. If you're looking at purchasing a new jumper from your favourite brand and they're having a 15% sale, you can flip it and tell yourself it's 85% of the price.

  3. Think like an outsider. Consider your options like you're trying to decide for a friend. Studies show that when we distance ourselves from situation and pretend like we're helping a friend run through the options, we make better decisions.

  4. Slow it down. Take your time to really consider the options! Research shows that the more "involved" we are on the issue the less likely we'll fall victim to the framing effect. In their words, the “framing bias would be mitigated or eliminated if individuals thought more carefully about their choices.".

  5. Use a decision matrix. A decision matrix is a tool that helps you weigh up different options with criteria that you care about. Sometimes making a call on the one frame presented can lead us to make poor choices. Thinking through the different options in a matrix can help us make better choices!


Remember: it's perfectly normal to fall for the framing effect. It's one of the biggest cognitive biases in decision-making! Being wary of how our brains interpret different frames can help us make better decisions. So slow down and stop to consider the frame before committing to a decision.