What would you prefer - an airbag that is 90% successful or one with a 10% failure rate? The first statement emphasises effectiveness and 90% feels pretty safe. On the other hand, 10% failure reminds you that something can go wrong, and we totally want to avoid that. Even though the alternatives are identical, research shows that people prefer the former one. Why is that so?
The way we are presented with information influences our decisions. Options can be framed with positive or negative connotations based on wordings, tone and situation. This is called the framing effect, one of many cognitive biases that affect our decision making. In the case of the airbag, the success rate statement creates a positive frame, as opposed to the negative frame that draws our notion to the possible failure of the product. Options that can lead to a gain or positive outcome are risk-averse, and options with a potentially negative result are associated with risk-taking.
Framing does affect not only our preferences but also the way we perceive situations. Imagine that you are in a meeting and one of your colleagues describes a situation in negative terms. You will likely think of that case as problematic - but it might not be a problem at all, it just sounds like it! Or, if it is - the description of the situation will prompt you towards thinking of certain solutions, thus narrowing your options and preventing you from taking an innovative approach. On the other hand, if someone presents something in a positive way, the other people in the meeting will probably like the idea just because of how it sounds. How someone frames an issue will direct other peoples attention and their understanding of the situation.
What can we do to avoid the unwanted framing effect? First - acknowledge how easy it is for our brains to make logical fallacies, and that no one is immune against cognitive biases. This insight will help you be more conscious of your behaviour and decision-making.
Secondly, try to actively change the frame - also known as “thinking outside the box”. If you are facing a problem, you might have a better shot at solving it if you frame it differently. For instance - instead of focusing on how to speed up a slow elevator, try to ask about ways to make the ride more enjoyable. Reframing is about finding alternative representations of the same situation to get a fresh perspective.
The framing effect was first described by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, who collaborated for over 20 years researching human behaviour. Kahneman received the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science for his work on behavioural economics, a few years after Tversky passed. Together, they worked on understanding judgement and decision making and introduced the concept of cognitive biases. Our behaviour is affected by how we process information, and the processing is not always objective, which makes us act irrationally. When the deviation from the rationality is systematic, the pattern is a cognitive bias.
An interesting experiment you can do with your audience is to try doing a test that shows how powerful the framing effect is. The test is about a hypothetical life and death situation, one of the problems Tversky and Kahneman used in their research on the framing effect.
The participants were asked to choose between two treatments for 600 people affected by a deadly disease. Treatment A would result in 200 survivors and 400 deaths, whereas treatment B had a 33% chance that everyone would survive but a 67% chance that everyone would die. This means treatments are identical and it should not matter which one you pick. Half of the participants got to choose between treatment A with a positive frame (how many people would live) and treatment B with a negative frame (how many people would die). The other half of the participants got the same choice but with reverse frames, treatment A being negatively framed and treatment B positively. The results showed that the positively framed option gained most support in each group, which demonstrates the framing effect.
To do the experiment, copy these templates (Group 1 and Group 2). Send the voting link from Group 1 presentation to half of your participants and the group 2 voting link to the other half. Conduct the voting and make sure that each group does not see the other group’s question. Analyse the result from the two different presentations, and hopefully, your test shows that people prefer the positive framing (Option A and Option 2) in this hypothetical life and death situation.
Big thank you to Diana Diez who co-wrote this article.
Tversky, Amos; Kahneman, Daniel (1981). "The Framing of decisions and the psychology of choice". Science. 211 (4481): 453–58. Bibcode:1981Sci...211..453T. doi:10.1126/science.7455683. PMID 7455683. S2CID 5643902.